WHEN LEFT WAS RIGHT
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 any complications.

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 where provided.

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 States.

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 reason.

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 oxen.

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 right."


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December 24, 1998

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