The Panama Canal
Review - Fall 1973
Recently, after threading
his way through the labyrinth of detours caused by the street and highway improvement
projects in Balboa, one disoriented motorist said, "There hasn't been so much
confusion since the big changeover from left to right hand driving in 1943."
The person who made this
remark had to be an old-timer. Few presently residing on the Isthmus remember that traffic
on the streets of Panama and the Canal Zone once moved on the left hand side just as it
presently does in England.
Thirty years and a million
cars later, there are few things left to remind the Isthmian motorist of the old drive to
the left rules. Some of the changes were simple. They included the switching of traffic
signs from the left to the right side of the roads to face right hand traffic. This was
done in all towns and along all highways. At Diablo Heights, the only change was the
reversal of one-way traffic around the parking area in front of the clubhouse and a change
in the angle of parking to conform to the right hand drive. Direction of traffic was
reversed in the five main traffic circles in Balboa and Balboa Heights in accordance with
the recommendations of the traffic committee. One-way traffic on the Prado in Balboa also
was reversed with cars going toward the Service Center on the right hand side from the
direction of the Administration Building and on the left hand side from the Service Center
toward the Building. Pier Street near the Terminal Building in Balboa has remained the
same to this day so as not to interfere with traffic of cars waiting for ships. Only the
horses had trouble. All other traffic switched from the left to the right without incident
the morning of April 15, 1943.
It was a red letter day for
motorists and operators of other types of vehicles in the Canal Zone and Panama. It was a
day that had been in the planning and discussion stage for more than 20 years. Death and
disaster on the highways and byways of the Isthmus had been predicted. Taxi drivers
protested. Confirmed left hand drivers, resisting change, had debated the question with
the Automobile Club. Ministers of the Panama Government had called it illegal. Top police
officials had argued it out with highway experts. But with an international highway under
construction and World War II bringing in hundreds of new workers accustomed to the right
hand drive, the change was inevitable. So after weeks of publicity in the local press,
pages of instructions to the traffic police and the public, the big moment finally came.
At 5 am on April 15, the sirens and fire whistles in Panama blew for 3 minutes. All
vehicular traffic on the Isthmian highways came to a complete stop. And then like a slow
ballet, everyone shifted over to the right hand side of the road.
To the complete surprise of
everyone, the change from left to right hand drive was made without any of the trouble
anticipated by civilian and military police in the Canal Zone and the national police of
Panama. The local press reported the only difficulty was with the horse that pulled the
little two-passenger coaches known locally as "carramettas" (a corruption of the
Spanish word carromato which means coach) in the cities of Panama and Colon. They seemed
unable to understand why they could not go along as they had always done. One coachman on
Fourth of July Avenue was seen having considerable difficulty with his horse that insisted
on heading down the left side of the road.
Officers stationed at
traffic circles and one-way streets where directions had been reversed reported no
difficulty on the part of most drivers although one officer had to whistle down a police
captain who was entering a one-way street from the wrong direction. The only accident had
nothing to do with the change. It involved a police officer who rammed into the back of a
garbage truck, causing about $60 worth of damage to his own car.
On one Army truck, a soldier
rode on the right fender as a guide. The truck started down the wrong side of the road as
it swung onto Fourth of July Avenue from the military reservation entrance, but the
soldier called to the driver to pull onto the proper side of the road before there were
Much of the success of the
switch from left to right hand drive on the streets of the Canal Zone and Panama could be
attributed to the careful planning by the two traffic departments and the campaign in the
newspapers which even printed drawings of arrows on which appeared "drive to the
right" to be pasted on drivers' windshields. Police warned about overconfidence after
a few days of driving on the right hand side of the road and motorists were cautioned
about careless driving, drunken driving and speeding.
As the police pointed out,
there were more complications than the simple shift from the left to right hand side of
the road. Both the Canal Zone and Panama made many changes in traffic regulations as well
as in the direction of travel on the streets, effective on the day of the shift. A one
month breaking-in period called for reduced speed limits for all vehicles to 12 miles per
hour for private automobiles and 10 miles per hour for other types of vehicles. Luckily
for the police in 1943, traffic was light and gasoline was being rationed.
Motorists were warned about
the obvious safety hazards and told what to do if traffic approached on the wrong side of
the road. "Stop the car. If possible, drive off the road. Blow the horn. Under no
circumstances attempt to pass the other car on the wrong side."
Keeping right after a left
turn was another hazard as there were pedestrians who had become confused and watched for
traffic approaching from the wrong direction before stepping from the curb. Pedestrians
were urged to cross the street at the end of the block only and to use marked crosswalks
Most Isthmian drivers came
through the ordeal in fine shape and with hardly any bent fenders. And there was at least
one group of workers in the Canal Zone that hardly noticed the change. They were the
employees at the third locks site in Gatun, where the right hand drive rule had been in
effect since the work had begun more than 2 years previously. When work started on
construction of the third set of locks in 1940, a project which was never completed, it
was decided that the right hand drive would cause fewer traffic accidents in the
construction area, since practically all of the truckdrivers were fresh from the United
In 1928, Panama and 13 other
countries in the world had "drive to the left" rules which are still in effect
in Great Britain, Ireland and several countries where there has been British influence.
Some said that the original horse-cab drivers in Panama were natives of the British
Caribbean islands and, despite the growth of international touring and the popularity of
the American automobile built for right hand driving, the custom persisted.
There were few roads on the
Isthmus when the United States started to construct the Canal in 1904 and the side of the
road taken by a horse and buggy or the slow moving early motorcars made little difference.
But by 1928, there were warning of serious traffic problems to come with the increase in
vehicular traffic and the construction of the Inter-American Highway. An article in the
Panama American in 1931 said, "It is important that the automobiles of Panama and the
Canal Zone be transferred to the right side of the road before the Pan American Highway is
opened if vehicular confusion, approximating the linguistic tangle encountered by the
builders of the Tower of Babel, was to be avoided.
"Should this strip on
the through route from Alaska to Patagonia retain the left side drive, the interesting
result would be signs notifying motorists to transfer to the opposite side of the road
when crossing the Panamanian border." The story predicted that this would mean that
for a few miles on each side of the border garages established "to salvage the dozens
of daily wrecks" would do a thriving business.
Even without the Pan
American Highway, there were many accidents in Panama in the 1930's which could be
attributed to the fact that U.S. manufactured vehicles came with right hand steering and
drivers had to pull out in the center of the road to see ahead before passing a car.
Driving motorcycles with sidecars was especially hazardous. Some buses had exits on the
right side and passengers had to disembark in the middle of the street.
Since the local bus and
"chiva" drivers had gone to considerable expense to convert vehicles purchased
in the United States for driving to the left, they objected to spending additional money
to again change the exits. Taxi drivers were against the changeover also but gave no
Public opinion, influenced
by the newspapers and the Rotary Clubs in Panama, began t favor the changeover in the mid
thirties when editorials and articles began to appear in the local papers. In 1936, the
American Federation of Government Employees passed a resolution in favor of a change in
traffic regulations to permit vehicular traffic to use the right hand. Members of the
Panama Metal Trades Council added their names to the ranks of Isthmian residents in favor
of the change to right hand drive. The Cristobal-Colon Rotary Club went on record for the
fourth time in support of the traffic change. One member objected, however, saving the
left hand drive was a thrill for the tourists. There have been a number of theories on how
England came to adopt the left hand drive system in the first place.
Quoting the National
Geographic, one student of the problem wrote in the Panama American in 1936 that the
practice may have come from the habit of the English coachman of sitting on the right side
of the driver's seat. "he grasped the whip in his right hand. In passing another
coach, he wanted to be in a position from which he could best prevent a collision. So he
passed an oncoming coach on that coach's right. From his seat on the right of his coach he
could see how near his wheels came to those of the other vehicle."
On the continent, it was
more frequently the custom for a postilion, or rider, to guide the horses instead of a
coachman. The postilion took his place at the left of the lead team in order to have his
right hand free to grasp the nearest bridle. He also wanted to avoid collisions but being
on the left, it was better for him to turn his horses to the right.
In the United States, it was
suggested, the right hand rule was adopted because the oxen took the right side in the old
days. Oxen were the draft animals most used in the colonies and the driver directed them
by voice and whip. He held the whip in his right hand and trudged along on the left of the
In the National Geographic
survey of the situation in 1936, about 60 of the nations and colonies of the world favored
the right side drive, 43 clung to the left. The need for a uniform rule was not so
apparent in the US and Canada as in Europe. The National Geographic commented,
"Consider the problem of a motorist who tried to drive in those day from Norway to
Italy through the Dolomites. He started bravely out from Aslo, keeping to the right until
he reached the Swedish border. Thereupon he kept to the left. Let him have his wits
about him because when he ferried over to Denmark, he must again move over to the right of
the road. Germany was the same. Back again to the left in Czechoslovakia. And just as the
bewildered autoist gets used to left driving in Austria, he must steel his nerves to
switch back to the right rule of the road in Yugoslavia and Italy."
In England, where the
vehicular traffic kept to the left and the rule of the sidewalk or pathway was to keep to
the right, there had been some confusion before the English rule of the road was made a
law in 1835.
But before that date the
following poem appeared in an English journal: "The law of the road is a paradox
quite As you're driving your carriage along If you go to the left you're sure to go
December 24, 1998