Statistics suggest that odds of death are much greater when traveling by automobile (1 in 98) than by plane (1 in 7,178). This was a comforting statistic to keep in mind as our plane wheels lifted off the ground and we turned toward the North Atlantic during our overnight flight to Ireland. Upon our safe arrival, however, the odds of dying in an accident not only increased when we switched back to ground transportation, but became exaggerated by the fact that we were in a foreign country, interpreting foreign road signs, and most importantly, driving on the left side of the road in a busy city! (I note that you best say “left side of the road” instead of “wrong side of the road” or you will find yourself corrected by a local who disagrees with your perspective of which side is the “wrong” side.)
The instructions from Enterprise were simple: drive on the left side of the road, no right on red and yield to cars when entering the roundabouts. We were given a quick tutorial on the pair of diesel Volkswagen Golfs we would take around the country. Mine included new technology that would kill the engine whenever the car came to a complete stop to save fuel. Upon removing my foot from the break pedal, it would quickly spark back to life in sufficient time to accelerate and continue on. Driving on the left side means the driver also sits on the opposite side of the car from what we are used to here at home. Drivers are allowed to park facing either direction on a two-way street and in bigger cities will frequently park on the sidewalks. Finally, roundabouts rather than stoplights control most intersections. These numerous differences all add up to give the driver quite a few things to adjust to as they pull away from the airport.
Determined to not make any foolish mistakes, I gave driving my full attention as we embarked. I swung toward the left side of the three-lane road, but not far enough I quickly realized when I (and my three frightened passengers) immediately noticed an oncoming double decker bus occupied my same lane. In clear hindsight, I should have erred on the side of caution by choosing the far left lane instead of the middle lane. It would have helped to also understand their line-painting scheme (where the center lines are painted white and the outer lines painted yellow) prior to departure — at least that’s the excuse I’m leaning on to explain my folly. It is very generous of the Irish to permit an American like myself, with no prior training or experience beyond my U.S. driver’s license, to get behind the wheel.
It doesn’t take long to get used to driving on the left side of the road. More difficult is growing accustomed to the narrow roadways — often with fences, walls, power line poles and even buildings abutting the edge of the pavement. There are no ditches along Irish roads. Instead, hedges line each side of the roadway, obstructing all peripheral views of the landscape and making it seem like you are driving through a passageway in a maze. The hedges, in most cases, aren’t entirely plant vegetation. They are old stone fences that have over time been obstructed by plant overgrowth. The Irish also do not believe in paving a shoulder alongside their local, regional and even some national roadways. Instead, the vegetation comes right up to the outer pavement lines and it wasn’t uncommon for the plant life to brush along the side of the car as we whizzed by. You can tell the Irish do not have to negotiate snowy roads on a routine basis.
Their roads are generally posted with speeds limits that far exceed the speeds the roads would be rated for if they were in America, despite their narrowness. Judging by the number of cars lined up waiting to pass us those first few days, the locals can actually drive them that fast, too.
These challenges are amplified when traveling on narrow coastal roads, especially those that are common routes for large tour buses. In one instance, the passage was so narrow (vertical rock face on one side, cliff drop-off on the other) I had to fold my side-mirror in to prevent a passing bus from knocking it off as the driver expertly passed with only a couple of inches to spare. Other times, a person is forced to reverse down the road to a wider spot where both cars can pass.
Even once you have the quirks of the car, driving laws and roads figured out, you still have to know where you are going. Thankfully we had a GPS that was accurate 90 percent of the time. While the locals were always very friendly and helpful in trying to give you directions that other 10 percent, we quickly learned they tend to exaggerate drive times.
Though Ireland is less than half the size of Minnesota, travel is much slower due to the more primitive nature of their roads. Thus, we were usually searching for the night’s bed and breakfast lodging well after sundown.
I was continually surprised when the GPS would tell us to turn down a one-lane country road that, by our standards, could be considered a good bike path in order to reach our destination. A person can easily get frustrated and wonder why they do not widen their roads to make them safer and more navigable. On the other hand, it was exactly what I would have expected of this mostly rural country.
Though much of the country has modernized, you can still find that authentic Irish country charm down some of these paths that require you to slow down and soak in your surroundings before winding past to the next small town or fishing village.
As a spoiler for all of those wondering, we did ultimately get both rental cars back without any “significant” damage. It must be that old luck of the Irish that a scrape on the plastic bumper is the only modification I made to my car in our 2500 kilometers (1,550 miles) of travel. Slán go foil.
Greg Schieber is a Caledonia native and recent graduate of Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa