Driving On The Wrong Side

🕔Apr 06, 2007

In parking lots, at gas stops and along roadways, right-hand drive vehicles are becoming an increasingly common sight. With the steering wheel on the right (or “wrong”) side of the vehicle, they are an oddity on the highway, often causing the passing driver or pedestrian to do a quick double take.

Dealers and hobbyists import right-hand drive vehicles from Japan and ship them to the docks in Vancouver. “It’s not a simple process,” says Marc Young of Kitimat. As a self-described Toyota enthusiast, Young has experienced first-hand the challenge of importing one of these vehicles.

“You have to search the Japanese auction websites, sift through thousands of cars and trucks, decipher Japanese, convert yen to dollars, then—if that isn’t enough stress—you still have to get the vehicle to Canada by avoiding all the shipping complications…”

From there the vehicle goes through a Canada Customs inspection, Agriculture Canada inspection, and provincial motor vehicle safety inspection. Finally, it is assigned a vehicle identification number at ICBC, declaring it to be road-worthy in our province.

Despite the entertaining logistics of importing a vehicle, Young continues to laud the value of driving on the right side. He drives an ’81 series Toyota Land Cruiser complete with fridge, freezer, sink, sleeping arrangements, television and a global position system. Everything in the turbo diesel truck is very compact, and he manages to comfortably fit his family of five inside.

Sharie Wertz of Smithers drives a 1989 Toyota Carib, roughly equivalent to the Toyota Corolla. With only 23,000 kilometres, her car is in like-new condition and has “all the bells and whistles: four-wheel drive, moon roof, automatic everything, and hydraulic front-end lift for added clearance.”

Right-hand-drive vehicles are often in pristine condition and are fast becoming an attractive option. “You can’t get this kind of value here,” says one owner. Vehicles in Japan go through mandatory inspections every two years and as a result are very well maintained. Low mileage is common on vehicles from Japan because it is expensive to insure, maintain and drive them there, particularly in large cities where alternate transportation exists. Wow!—low kilometres and in good condition!

Still, everyone wants to know what it’s like to drive this way. “I was really surprised how quickly it became normal to drive on the right side,” says Sharie Wertz. Drivers agree that, after the initial challenge of confusing the turn signals with the windshield wipers, steering with the white line of the highway beside you is a very easy adjustment.

But drivers of these vehicles unanimously agree that the biggest challenge is the drive-thru. “It’s fine if you have a passenger to hand the cash and get the change; otherwise you have to engage in some vehicular gymnastics,” says one. Then, if you venture to Vancouver or other major centers, there are the tollbooths and pay-parking lots where the driver has to put it in park and make a big stretch to the left window.

Driving on the “wrong side” seems to be more of an adjustment for passengers than for drivers. Front-seat passengers, seeing the yellow line out their side window and finding themselves without a steering wheel, will often automatically check the rearview mirror (that isn’t aligned for them anyway), or thump the floor for a brake pedal that isn’t there. But the passenger, like the driver, quickly adapts.

Gwen Nicholas of Ootsa Lake agrees that it is relatively effortless to drive on the right side: “It felt quite natural,” she says. Gwen and her family live 100 kilometres from Burns Lake and have found driving their 1990 Land Cruiser Prado on the bumpy back roads no problem at all.

Despite the purported ease of driving on the wrong side, right-hand drive is not without its opponents.

Those opposed include some provincial officials who are concerned that right hand drive vehicles might be dangerous in passing situations because the driver’s range of vision is limited to the outside of the road. Those behind the wheel of a right hand drive respond collectively – if it is not safe to pass, don’t pass. Some drivers say they wait for the passing lane, most say they are simply defensive drivers and pass only when the need and the opportunity arise. But the voices of those opposed may be growing in number.

Federal law currently stipulates that any vehicle imported into Canada must be at least 15 years old. According to a study done by Transport Canada, there have been approximately 70,000 15-year-old vehicles imported since 2002, the majority of these being right-hand drive. It has become hard to ignore the presence of these vehicles on the road and impossible to deny their economic impact upon both insurers and motor vehicle dealers. Transport Canada is currently proposing to raise the minimum import age to 25, making it even harder to find cars that qualify that are still worth importing.

But, for now, the process continues. About 175 Japanese right-hand-drive vehicles are registered in BC every month. Some are parked on car lots under flashy ribbons. Some are stored in backyards under blue tarps. And some of them make their way through the challenge of the tollbooths and out of the city, driving north onto our highways and back roads.

No matter which side you are on—watch the road, the weather, and drive carefully!