Driving in Canada: A Kiwi's guide to driving in British Columbia
Nervous, alone in a different country and driving on the "wrong" side of the road. What could go wrong?
I was in Canada for work, so I opted to drive around for the final few days. I was in a state of blissful ignorance and it wasn't until my flatmate said"you'll finally get to try driving on the opposite side of the road" that it clicked. Canada wasn't like New Zealand. They drive on the right.
At the start of the year, the New Zealand news cycle was dominated by stories about how foreign drivers were a danger on our roads.
People were falling asleep at the wheel, going onto the wrong side of the road, and seemed to be dying left, right and centre.
It was weighing on my mind as I got behind the wheel.
But what's it like to be on the wrong side of the road in a distant and scenic land?
I'd flown from Calgary into Penticton, British Columbia, where the rental was waiting. It wouldn't be like driving in Auckland, but I was still nervous:
A Prius. An auto, thankfully. Started silently. I've never driven a golf cart before, but I imagine it has a similar feel to this thing. The rental firm threw in a GPS, but even that gets lost at times. Thank god for the cheap sim card and Google Maps.
YOU TURN RIGHT ON A RED
This is quite possibly my favourite road rule of all time (until New Zealand brings in legislation targeting slow drivers and the annoying people who speed up at passing lanes).
I got to turn right on a red at the first intersection I came to. It's strangely satisfying.
The rule - which sadly isn't a country-wide thing - is designed to stop traffic grinding to a halt. Initially, I was sceptical. It's a red light after all. But once you've done it a couple of times you see how much easier life would be if New Zealand adopted this (hint, hint, Transport Minister Simon Bridges).
PEOPLE STILL OVERTAKE YOU
When I'm driving I get peeved at people dawdling along at 80kmh in a 100kmh zone. If you could drive within 5kmh of the speed limit for your licence then there's no reason for you not to be able to do that on the open road.
On the way to my first appointment I wasn't fluffing around, but almost every car still overtook me.
Even when the "golf cart" was doing 100kmh (and that took some working up to), people in large trucks, cars and four wheel drives were still flying past me. I was going at the speed limit, if not a little over, and suddenly I felt like I was back in New Zealand. The difference was this multi-lane highway went on for kilometres.
It seems like it's a universal thing to overtake people, regardless of whether they're travelling at the speed limit or not. I wasn't complaining though. The less traffic I had to worry about holding up, the better.
TRAFFIC LIGHTS FLASH. EVERYTHING FLASHES
I didn't really know what I'd hit when I first came across a flashing green traffic light. It turns out it means all other traffic has a red and you're the only ones moving. In Quebec and Ontario it means you can turn left as the oncoming traffic has a red light. And in British Colombia it means the intersection is pedestrian controlled. It's a bizarre thing, and while I'm not entirely sold on the idea (a green is a green, and surely they could just use a lit arrow for turning drivers), it works.
And rather than paint arrows on the roads to keep tourists on the right side of the road, I passed a heap of traffic islands with flashing yellow lights on them, telling you to keep to the right. It's an effective tool and even in the sunshine the flashing lights stick out like dog's bollocks.
There are so many signs you get the feeling the Canadians took specific steps to cater for tourist drivers, to minimise the carnage.
I ONLY FELT LIKE THROWING UP AT THE WHEEL ONCE
I'm proud of that. It was at an "uncontrolled" intersection, one of the nasty ones I'd read about, and with the sort of rules that would make a learner driver sweat spinal fluid.
Four roads fed into this intersection. It was busy. It had no signs.
I'd feared coming to one of these since reading a list of road rules at Vancouver airport.
Not helping much was the fact that I was in the wrong lane and had to turn left rather than go straight on.
At these intersections you give way to a vehicle approaching the intersection before you. If you both arrive at the same time then the person coming from the right has right-of-way.
It seems easy, but by the time I got to this intersection I had no idea what the hell I was doing and instantly forgot the rule.
Cars were waiting to turn, there were some wanting to go straight ahead, but they'd stopped too. Traffic was backing up. And then there's me. In the wrong lane, clueless, and feeling more ill by the second.
I inched forward, and when I was certain I wasn't going to cause a pile up - or die - I punched it. Once I'd made it through in one piece, I had to go through again to get back on the right track. But it didn't take long for that back-of-the-throat vomit feeling to sink back into my stomach.
It's the only time I felt like I could have been in a crash, and when I could put money on it being my fault.
THERE AREN'T AS MANY ROUNDABOUTS AS I THOUGHT
In fact, in all my travels I only saw one roundabout. It turns out drivers in the US and Canada have a pathological fear of the things. A Kiwi who's lived in Kelowna for the last few years tells me even when there is a roundabout, people don't know how to negotiate it or indicate their way through it. In defence of Canadians, plenty of Kiwis are pretty clueless when it comes to roundabouts too.
I FELT STUPID TELLING MYSELF THIS, BUT ...
While I didn't drive in a built-up area like Vancouver - I was mainly in the country, or passing through small towns - I still faced the obstacles many tourists in New Zealand face. You're tempted to take in the scenery, tiredness is setting in and you still have long, winding and unfamiliar roads to drive before you can rest.
My best tactic, as silly as it sounds, was repeating in my mind "drive on the right" every time I sat in the car.
DAMN YOU, WIPERS!
The only thing causing me constant trouble was the window wipers. Any time I tried to indicate, I always hit the wrong lever and set the wipers lashing full-tilt at the dry windscreen. By the end of day three I'd given up getting shirty over it and just accepted that nearly every time I indicate the wipers would flap about instead.
DRIVING WITH LIGHTS IS A THING
While it's not a requirement in every province, many require motorists to drive with their lights on. The "golf cart" turned its lights on automatically. Yet another wee function to make the roads safer.
THE 80KMH LIMIT
You're in the middle of nowhere, on a long, straight stretch of highway. So why the 80kmh limit? Apparently it's not a road or tourist thing. It's to give you and the wildlife a greater chance of surviving, should something like a moose, bear or elk mosey out onto the road while you're barrelling along it.
WHAT I LEARNED
Driving on the opposite side of the road isn't so bad.
I was tired from changing time zones, new to this part of the world, was sharing a road with trucks, cars and trailers - most of which were overtaking me - and I was relying on my GPS and Google Maps to get to places I couldn't pronounce. But I never felt at risk of going into the wrong lane.
It took a couple of hours before I felt comfortable putting the radio on, but the best thing I did was give myself plenty of time to get places; if I was sent down a wrong road, got lost, or couldn't find a place, I still didn't need to worry.
Reading up on the road rules in a particular province helped, but even without most of this knowledge, Canadians have laid out their roads in a way that is relatively easy to pick up as a newcomer.
My top tip? Focus on the roads, not the scenery.
New Zealand could definitely learn a thing or two about making its roads more friendly for foreign drivers.