8 Sep 2009

Samoa's drivers keep left under new road rules

8:19 pm on 8 September 2009

Samoa has successfully made the transition to driving on the left side of the road.

Despite much resistance and public lobbying against the move, the government-led change has gone ahead as planned.

For more than 100 years Samoans drove on the right hand side of the road, but the government decided to make the change to be better aligned with New Zealand and Australian driving regulations.

Drivers in Samoa are being urged to drive slowly and cautiously over the coming days, Radio New Zealand International's reporter in Samoa reports.

The official change-over took place on Tuesday morning (local time), with many locals out in force to witness the historic event.

Prime Minister Tuila'epa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi gave a speech and an official announcement was made before the changeover took place.

Drivers on the main street of the capital Apia waited for 10 minutes as vehicles moved to the opposite side of the road. Traffic began moving again, to the sound of car horns honking and people clapping and cheering.

Lights are working and roundabouts are clearly marked for driving on the left hand side, with many traffic officers monitoring drivers' speed.

Motorists venturing out on Tuesday appeared to be driving cautiously on the first day of a two-day public holiday to mark the occasion, but public opinion on the change is still mixed.

Road workers are working around the clock to paint directional arrows on roads after bad weather hindered progress at the weekend.

A three-day ban on alcohol sales is in force while drivers get used to the new system, though there are exemptions for restaurants, bars and tourist hotels.

Bus drivers protest change

Many bus drivers have stopped services amid a row with the government over the costs they face to make the switch.

The two main associations of bus owners announced a withdrawal of services until they get financial assistance to change the doors on their buses from the right to the left.

Prime Minister Tuila'epa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi says politics is involved and opposition politicians are behind the bus owners' move.

Up to a third of the country's population of 180,000 have opposed the switch.

The movement People Against Switching Sides took a case to the Supreme Court arguing that the switch threatened the country's constitutional right to life.

But the court disagreed, saying it was not proven that more accidents would mean more road fatalities.