The chances of meeting a foreign driver on the wrong side of an Irish road are anything but remote. Unlike us, 80 per cent of the world drives on the right, writes Anne Lucey.
Every year tourist drivers from the US and Europe are involved in many near misses, and some serious road traffic collisions.
Just this week Deirdre O'Brien Vaughan, the Irish traditional musician from Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare, was awarded more than €278,000 in damages in the High Court for injuries she received in an August 1999 crash involving a French tourist. Liability had been conceded by the holidaymaker, whose car had been on the wrong side of the road.
Growing concern about the dangers posed by tourist drivers led Kerry County Council recently to pass an emergency motion to erect large signs and road markings to prevent more collisions at a junction on the N22 near Killarney for Kenmare and west Cork. But even while the wheels of bureaucracy moved to acquire the paint, poles and danger signs, a serious head-on collision occurred and a number of people were hospitalised.
In the same week, in south Kerry another serious collision occurred as a car pulled out on the wrong side of the road from a B&B.
There have been nine such accidents in a few months, Cllr Michael Healy-Rae told the council. "What happens is that people drive off and they forget which side they should be driving on."
Tourists are warned. On the information sheet provided by the US Embassy for its visiting citizens, motorists without experience in left-drive countries are told to be extra cautious.
"Tourists driving on the wrong side of the road are the cause of several serious accidents each year," reads the website. Most rental cars are stick shift; country roads quickly become narrow, uneven and winding and are dangerous during the summer when traffic increases, it says.
Drivers going to the wrong side of the road was the contributory cause in 16.3 per cent of 4,007 two-vehicle accidents in 2001, according to the National Roads Authority.
In a separate NRA category of all car accidents classified by the driver's country of residence, six car drivers - 2.1 per cent - involved in fatal accidents were foreigners. In car accidents where people were injured, 144 drivers were foreign.
Tourists are very responsible when it comes to speed and alcohol, says Bill Miley, a spokesman at Hertz Rent A Car head office in Wexford. He adds that most of the accidents involving tourists are minor, low-speed mishaps.
Most car hire companies now have windscreen stickers and reflectors to remind tourists to drive on the left, a fact that may be attributed to the campaign of Anne O'Brien, Carlow, whose boyfriend and two American tourists were killed in a two-car collision in 1996.
But all the signs in the world won't help in a tight situation where driver instinct takes over, says Conor Faughnan, public affairs manager for the Automobile Association.
"There is no more visible permanent reminder to the driver than the fact he is sitting on the other side of the car. But this doesn't prevent accidents," Faughnan says. He believes tourists driving their own cars here increases the danger.
The AA has found that most accidents occur near the end of holidays. People tend to be more keyed up and aware during the first days or week.
Irish drivers abroad who drive on the right side are, of course, just as vulnerable.
Driving over a hump-backed bridge, "faster than thought", an Irish driver - and others used to the left - will pull to the left if he feels he is taking too much of the road. Here around a bad bend, a foreign driver used to the right will instinctively be inclined to the right.
"It's an intractable problem, Faughnan says. "It exists across the world where tourists visit. I am not sure signposting is a panacea."
But reminder signs, at exits from hotels, wildlife parks, viewing spots and perhaps secondary roads would help, he adds.
"There is no ideal - it's a legacy which the world is stuck with."