APIA – The small Pacific island country of Samoa is suffering a case of national road rage over government plans to switch to driving on the left early next month.
The nation of around 180,000 people is due to change from driving on the right-hand side on September 7, in what is believed to be the first switch since Nigeria, Ghana and Yemen shifted to the right in the 1970s and Sweden did so in 1967.
Since the government announced the plan in 2007, huge protest marches have been held, more than a sixth of the population has signed a petition calling for the changeover to be reversed, and a court is expected to rule on its legality later this week.
Local bus owners are furious over having to build new doors on the opposite side of their vehicles so passengers don’t have to get off in the middle of the road.
At least one village is threatening to stop traffic passing through after the changeover.
But pugnacious Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has no intention of backing down from the switch on September 7, when a two-day holiday will start to ease the changeover.
“The switch in the side of the road for driving is a policy for the development and improvement of life for all the people of Samoa,” he said in a televised address to the nation earlier this month.
Tuilaepa says changing sides to be in line with Australia and New Zealand means some of the 170,000 Samoans living in those countries — which drive on the left — will be able to send used right-hand drive cars home to their relatives.
Cars would become cheaper in Samoa as a result and more people in rural areas would be able to get vehicles to help develop their land, he argues.
But opponents, including the protest group People Against Switching Sides (PASS), accuse the prime minister of bulldozing the changeover through without a thorough study of its impact and without adequately preparing the country’s drivers.
Among the strongest opponents are the bus owners and hire car companies, which will be stuck with fleets of left-hand drive vehicles no one wants to hire or buy.
Le Anapapa Laki, a former anti-government legislator, says he faces a bill equivalent to 18,500 US dollars for each of his 14 buses to switch the doors to the other side.
“My business has been handed down from our grandfather to our father and then to us,” he said.
“Now I cannot continue if the switch takes place.”
Another owner Nanai Tawan said the government was treating bus operators like fools.
“In protest I would rather bring my buses to parliament and burn them there for parliament to see what they are doing to us.”
A leading villager in Saleologa, on Savai’i, one of Samoa’s two main islands, said the village plans to block the road after the changeover.
“We want to tell the government, we love our children. They are the future and yet their lives will be in danger because of the switch,” said Pauli Kolise.
PASS has taken the government to Samoa’s Supreme Court, saying the switch threatens the constitutional right to life, with a ruling due at the end of this week.
Of the 18,000 vehicles in Samoa, 14,000 are left-hand drive cars built for driving on the right and only 4,000 are right-hand drive.
Graham Williams, a New Zealand crash investigator, told the court that Samoa’s often poorly surfaced and narrow roads, often fringed by high vegetation, raised the risks of traffic mayhem after the switch.
“Based on my experience and from what I’ve seen during my trips to Samoa, come September 7, there will be a dramatic increase in the number of road crashes,” Williams told the court.
Even if the court action fails, PASS plans another protest on August 31 to show the government for a final time what Samoans think of the switch.
An earlier protest in Apia at the end of 2007 attracted an estimated 15,000 opponents and another in April last year saw 18,000 take to the streets.