Samoa switches sides

Sweden did it in 1967. Okinawa Prefecture in Japan did it in 1978. Find out how the Samoans did it

On 7 September 2009, Samoa (population 180,000) became the first major region/country in over 30 years to switch the side of the road upon which vehicles are driven. The move, which sees Samoans now drive on the left hand side of the road, has the objective of improving accessibility to cheaper and better quality new and second hand, right hand drive, cars from overseas.  
The move was favoured given that approximately 170,000 Samoans currently call Australia and New Zealand home, and often send money (and now it is hoped, vehicles) back to their families. Many of the Pacific nations (although not all) also drive on the left hand side of the road.

Controversial announcement
The initial announcement of the switch in 2007 was not without controversy, with a campaign of peaceful protest and ultimately a legal challenge in the Samoan Supreme Court. ARRB was commissioned by the Office of the Attorney General of Samoa to provide an independent professional review of the planning and preparations for the switch, and to give an opinion regarding its likely road safety implications, culminating in providing expert evidence to Samoa’s Supreme Court.
David McTiernan and Paul Hillier of ARRB’s Sydney office met with key government officials (including the Attorney General; the Minister of Works, Transport and Infrastructure; the CEO of the Land Transport Authority; and the Commissioner of Police and Prisons) and undertook extensive road network drive throughs. A range of planning and implementation documentation was also provided for consideration by the ARRB team.

The facts
Samoa has some 1,000 km of sealed roads across its two main islands: Upolu and Savaii. Upolu is the busiest and most developed of the islands and includes the capital Apia. There are around 18,000 vehicles in Samoa, with approximately 14,000 of these being left hand drive, with a heavy reliance upon buses and taxis as public transport.
Traffic volumes are relatively light, and speeds low, compared to many countries, with an open road speed limit before the switch of 35mph (56km/h) and 25mph (40km/h) in Apia town. There had been 97 fatalities in the five years to the end of 2008. Issues exist with respect to the extremely low level of compliance with seat belt usage legislation and the incidence of drink driving.

Those opposing the switch expressed concerns regarding:

  • pedestrian safety (especially the young and elderly) due to a failure to look the correct way when crossing the road etc.
  • passenger bus entry and exit doors – which if unmodified could see passengers entering and exiting from ‘live’ traffic lanes
  • reduced forward sight lines for drivers in left hand drive vehicles operating on the left hand side of the road when negotiating left hand curves and during overtaking manoeuvres.

Finding a solution
ARRB’s review found there were a number of engineering treatments and awareness activities planned and/or implemented. A framework based on the 4Es of road safety (Engineering, Education, Enforcement and Encouragement) was adopted to analyse the likely effectiveness of the measures in mitigating the risks of the switch and in offering more generic road safety returns. One of the most significant measures announced was a blanket reduction in speed limits of 10mph (16km/h) for an indefinite period during and after the switch.
A ‘gap analysis’ was also conducted with the results being provided to the Land Transport Authority for consideration of additional measures for implementation in advance of the switch. Given the finite level of resources available, the focus was by necessity on identifying low cost treatments and activities that provided a very good rate of return.  
Paul Hillier provided expert testimony to the Supreme Court hearing. The verbal judgment of Justice Nelson, which was announced on 28 August 2009, found that the switch was not unconstitutional (in that it would not create a definite or immediate risk to life) and could therefore go ahead on 7 September 2009 as planned. At the time of writing, the full written judgment is still awaited.
The switch day unfolded without major incident or even minor crashes amid the gaze of the world’s media. It is understood that apart from a small number of minor incidents, this remains the case. A concerted increase in police enforcement of drink driving and seat belt usage ahead of the switch has also proved to be highly effective.    
It is, however, considered that the ultimate test will be in the coming months as road user familiarity increases and levels of concentration, care and enforcement could reasonably be expected to drop. For this reason, ARRB recommended a robust evaluation and monitoring regime (over at least a six-month period), as well as the continuation of education and encouragement activities in the months ahead.
One of the undoubted challenges is likely to be in correctly determining contributory factors in future road crashes to identify if those incidents are directly attributable to the switch.

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