Samoa’s hard turn to the left

Some aren’t taking kindly to the switch to the other side of the road

Samoa’s hard turn to the leftSamoa is set to become the first country in 39 years to change which side of the road people drive on. At 6 a.m. on Sept. 7, Samoan drivers will have to change over from the right lane to the British-style left. The initiative was headed by Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who hopes that the change from left-hand-drive cars will allow Samoans to buy cheaper right-hand-drive cars and encourage citizens living abroad in Australia and New Zealand to send cars back to relatives in Samoa.

But a backlash has inspired some of the biggest demonstrations the country has ever seen. Criticisms include the cost of implementing the new program (estimated at US$390 million), complaints from taxi fleets, whose insurance rates will skyrocket if they continue to drive left-hand vehicles under the new plan, and protests from bus companies who must change passenger boarding procedures. A new political party, People Against Switching Sides (PASS), has even formed. PASS launched a legal case in Samoa’s supreme court, claiming that the switch is unconstitutional.

Some Samoans are already refusing to go along with the change. Villagers in the town of Laulii have altered the new directional arrows on the road by painting over them so they point the wrong way. Others have removed road signs that remind drivers of the Sept. 7 switchover. But the switch is likely to go ahead. “Eventually, the savings to individual Samoans of being able to buy cars from Australia and New Zealand instead of having to import them from the U.S. will overtake the more immediate social cost of switching sides,” says traffic expert Tom Vanderbilt. “But that’s assuming that Australia and New Zealand don’t switch in the meantime.”