The rental car, approaching from Crewe Road, entered the Elgin Avenue roundabout, turning sharply to the right, trying to find an exit, oblivious to the horror about to ensue from navigating in the wrong direction.
Fortunately, most local drivers have watched tourists piloting rental cars, and are familiar with North Americans’ occasional confusion of right-hand and left-hand drive. In the roundabout, oncoming traffic halted while the driver panicked, rapidly reversed direction and fled the scene, chastened, and if none the worse for wear, unlikely to repeat the error.
The Illinois-based National Safety Council this week announced its latest “Defensive Driving Course – Left Side of the Road” for Caribbean nations, designed, the organization says, for motorists “who drive in countries with road systems that pass oncoming traffic on the left side.”
At first blush, the program appears over-ambitious. Most local motorists will have grown up driving on the left side of the road. In fact, the National Safety Council says, 30 percent of the world drives on the left. Other sources indicate almost 40 percent of the world – 76 countries – live in left-hand traffic nations.
However, even larger nations have their anomalies. The U.S. drives on the right, but its Virgin Islands territory drives on the left. China drives on the right, but its Hong Kong and Macau regions drive on the left. By contrast, the U.K. drives on the left, but its Gibraltar territory drives on the right. Canada had similarly mixed traffic jurisdictions until the 1920s.
“We have operated in the [Caribbean] region since 1964,” said Brett Berkhof, senior business manager, international, for the nonprofit National Safety Council. “We were the first and have trained 66 million drivers around the world, and now do about 3.1 million trainees every year.” The group has training centers in 28 countries and operates in 100, including, regionally, Trinidad, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, Guyana, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Bermuda and the Bahamas.
The difference between left-hand and right-hand traffic, Mr. Berkhof said, is variation in the risks motorists face: “roundabouts and crossings, the signage is different, changing lanes … we focus on behavior and attitudes. People need to know and understand their limits.”
The council’s publicity materials list techniques to avoid collisions and traffic violations, and while not explicitly for left-hand traffic, apply to any situation. Instruction includes “sensible advice for choosing safe and responsible driving behaviors and habits,” the use of safety devices, guidance in difficult driving conditions and how attitudes can “prevent accidents and improve decision-making.”
The council, Mr. Berkhof said, seeks to certify local instructors through agency training centers, then supply books, pamphlets and other literature, PowerPoint presentations, videos and manuals.
“The [driving] course runs between six hours and eight hours, and can be localized for unique hazards,” he said, allowing, for example, for Cayman’s annual rains, Trinidad’s mountains, difficult roads, language variations and/or multi-vehicle traffic.
Classes average between 20 students and 25 students per class, of all ages, although special courses are available for younger drivers and different vehicles, all teaching, he said, employing an agency phrase, “principles and programs for ‘left-hand side alive’.”
“We modify behavior so you can come home safely at night,” Mr. Berkhof said. Instructors “have asked us for help to tailor the programs for the safety courses, which are “fully scripted and mapped out.”
Course costs are decided by local instructors, although the National Safety Council charges only US$4 for its materials. The size of the business depends solely on the ambitions of the operator.
He said council statisticians – “we have a whole research department” – have documented reductions in road incidents, injuries and deaths in countries where the courses have been taught and that insurance companies often cut rates for drivers completing the courses.
“It’s not only quantifiable, but also empirical,” he said. “We hear from people all the time about the value of the course. People come out and say, ‘hey, I never knew that before’.“
Mr. Berkhof cannot recall previous courses in the Cayman Islands, but says the organization has spoken to the Health Services Authority and seeks contact with local entities including police, insurance companies, corporations that operate fleets of vehicles, taxi companies, schools, government agencies and elected officials, looking at “areas where we can make the most impact – distracted driving, teen driving, workplace safety, prescription drug overdoses and safe communities. My mission is to save lives.”
Locally, few of Cayman’s five driving schools were familiar with the National Safety Council. Owner and sole operator of the Cayman Islands Driving School, Graham Walker, was skeptical about the organization, citing expenses and competition with the islands’ eight instructors.
“It costs $400 per year just for an instructor’s license,” Mr. Walker said, in addition to costs for vehicles, licensing and insurance. “The costs are just too high”, he said.
Owner of the Easy Driving school, Willard Isaacs, said he had heard of the council’s program, but knew few details. “I definitely would be interested, though,” he said, “I’m a person who is 100 percent in favor of personal development, and I’d love to get that under my belt.”