So the Mister and I have been driving our own vehicle here on the island for about two weeks and have only had one near-death experience, which is pretty good for learning to drive on the wrong side of the road. (And I would like to clarify that I was not driving at the time of the aforementioned incident.)
To the Mister’s credit, however, I wasn’t helping matters by yelling “RIGHT SIDE! RIGHT SIDE!” when I meant “correct side” – aka the left, not the right. But we survived so that’s what counts.
There are a few important things to know about driving in St. Kitts. First of all, obviously, everything stays to the left. Secondly, there are very few other rules.
There are no traffic lights on the island and very few stop signs. All intersections are roundabouts, which we sometimes in America call traffic circles. (To all of you in Spring Hill – imagine the circle outside Target and Olive Garden. . . but you go around backwards.) Vehicles already inside a roundabout have the right-of-way over those trying to enter the roundabout, but otherwise it’s a hang-on-to-your-seat-cushions free for all. There are technically two lanes inside roundabouts – an outer lane for those exiting immediately and an inner lane for those going farther around – but no one actually uses them. Once you’re in the roundabout, you’re in.
There are also very few street names. Getting directions is a little like this: “Take the bypass around to the sugarcane man and turn right. Go past the fire station and turn right when you get to the bay by Port Zante. Go down to that funny little roundabout, take the first exit (which is the first road in a left hand circle, which is essentially just straight) and then take the second right close to the post office. Take the second exit in the Circus (a big fancy roundabout in town) and go straight to the government offices building and turn left. It’s on your right a ways down.” (Those are essentially directions to Karibhana’s, the only department-store-type establishment in the area.)
In America, we honk our car horns to show frustration or as a warning to other drivers. Here, it’s like having a conversation between cars. People honk when passing pedestrians or other drivers, you honk when you see your friends going the other way, taxis and buses honk to potential passengers on the side of the road, you honk when going around sharp curves, you honk when someone lets you into traffic (which isn’t often. . . . basically you just honk all the time. Cars are very vocal here. Which is troublesome because our car horn currently doesn’t work.
A few other things to note: You are not required to slow down to pass another vehicle. All roads are two lanes, but there aren’t really any center lines so if someone in front is slower and the oncoming lane is clear, you just circle around them (after you honk, of course). Also, cars, taxis, buses and people routinely just STOP in the middle of the road without warning. They stop to have conversations with other pedestrians or drivers, sometimes taking up both lanes of traffic. They stop to run into stores; they stop for herds of goats crossing the road (I myself have been stopped by two different herds since we’ve had the car); they stop to pick up or drop off passengers. Thus, the rules about going around people. If you didn’t pass, you’d never get anywhere.
[NOTE: While you can honk at anything else on the island, you cannot honk at the goats. It only scares them and scatters them further across the road and around your car, rather than actually hurrying them across.]
What else, what else. . . oh, left hand turns are automatic but right-hand turns have to look for oncoming traffic, which of course is backwards from the States. There are a few three-way intersections here are there, but they are very confusing because you can’t just continue on to the right, you have to pass the first entrance and then turn right across oncoming traffic, which is also backwards from the States. The gear shift is on the left-hand side of the steering wheel (which is on the right) and the blinker is on the right-hand side, which at least for us is backward and always causes us to turn on our windshield wipers when we’re intending to turn. (No one but American students really use their blinkers around here anyway.)
There is a special type of “car math” used on the island as well. This is not so true in private vehicles, where the driver of course can make his/her own decisions, but in public buses, taxis or when a private person is serving as public transportation (such as picking up attendees for church), there is a special formula used to figure out how many persons a vehicle can ACTUALLY hold. This is very deceiving, since you’d think the number of seats in the car would indicate this, but that is not true. To the best of my ability, I think I have figured out that, in a smaller car, you take the number of actual seats in the car and add two to find the true maximum capacity for the vehicle. In a taxi or bus (which are just 15-passenger vans), you add 1.5 people for each row in the van and that gives you maximum capacity. So it’s not uncommon for a 15-passenger bus to actually have 19-21 people in it. Good thing nothing on the island is very far away.
It is illegal to use a cell phone while driving, in any shape form or fashion. Speeding is also illegal, but it’s one of the many laws that aren’t enforced. (But you can’t drive very fast anyway because the pot holes will rip your car to pieces. And because people just STOP in the middle of the road!) However, the car insurance law is enforced and they will put you in prison if you’re caught driving without it – something I think the U.S. should definitely adopt.
One last thing – there is a reason cars here are called “island mobiles.” They are not the same types of cars we would normally drive in the U.S. Here, it’s considered perfectly normal for a car to not have working air conditioning or functioning power windows, power locks, radios, windshield wipers or blinkers. Island mobiles also have the odd habits for all the doors to not work properly. It’s normal to have at least one door on your car that either doesn’t open from the inside or doesn’t open from the outside. On our car, for example, the passenger’s (front left) door won’t open from the inside unless you pull the open handle and the lock switch up at the same time, and the back passenger’s door won’t open unless you smack your full weight into it. The driver’s door won’t stay locked from the outside unless you push down the lock switch, close the door while holding the handle out, and then release the handle. Oh – and almost every vehicle on the island, if it was owned by a Kittian at any point in its lifespan – has some sort of name or saying painted on it. It’s just something they do here; I have no idea why. Ours says “Pure Rumours” in a strange font across the back windshield. One car that parks on campus a lot says “No Me Fault” on the front windshield and all the buses have crazy names painted on the sides. It’s just another one of those strange island habits that I guess you get used to here.
What are some driving rules in your country? If you drive on the left side of the road, what are some tips you could give those of us used to the right side?