Outcry as Samoa motorists prepare to drive on left

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Samoa is about to become the first nation in nearly 40 years to switch the side of the road that traffic drives on, and the reasons are primarily economic.

The switch to driving on the left hand side of the road, which takes effect at 6 a.m. local time on Monday (11 a.m. EDT), is the brain child of Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who said it would be more economical for Samoans to buy new and used cars from Pacific neighbors Australia and New Zealand.

But the change has sparked a public outcry, with opponents saying it will only cause more traffic chaos on the island’s already dangerous roads.

Last month hundreds of protesters took to the streets to denounce the decision and some of the government-erected signs advising people to “keep left” have been vandalized.

The companies that run buses on the island have also requested government compensation for the hefty costs of swapping their passenger doors to the left-hand side.

“There is still strong opposition; however, we don’t think it will turn into outright disobedience, but the resentment is very much there,” Russell Hunter, managing editor of the Samoa Observer newspaper, told Reuters by phone.

The government has run a months-long campaign to educate drivers, and designated a practice lot. Monday and Tuesday have also been declared public holidays to get drivers used to the change, Hunter said.

“But it’s when everybody goes back to work on Wednesday, that’s the worry,” he added.

Samoa and its closest neighbor, American Samoa, have been driving on the right side of the road since German occupation between 1900-1914.

The population of Samoa is approximately 177,000, with about 18,000 vehicles on the road. Around 14,000 of these cars are designed for right-hand driving, and are expected to plummet in price overnight.

The last countries to swap the side of the road traffic drives on were Sweden and Iceland in the 1960s.

Reporting by Pauline Askin, Editing by Miral Fahmy