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Samoa road switch could trigger crashes

Published: 4:25PM Wednesday August 19, 2009 Source: AAP

Samoa's bold switch to driving on the left will trigger a rash of dangerous and deadly car accidents, a traffic crash expert has predicted.

A legal case was launched in a Samoan court this week in a last-ditch effort to stop a radical road rule change from being introduced in less than three weeks.

The nation's prime minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, is driving the change in the belief that aligning Samoa with Australian and New Zealand rules will encourage vehicle importation.

But opponents, including the action group People Against Switching Sides (PASS), believe the switch is pointless, costly and dangerous and being poorly executed.

Residents of two villages are so angry they plan to force drivers passing through to swap back to the right side.

In the Supreme Court this week, PASS is claiming the switch is unconstitutional because the government could not guarantee Samoans' right to life.

Samoa Observer, the national newspaper, reported that an independent traffic crash investigator from New Zealand, Graham Williams, gave evidence that accident rates would soar after the switch.

"Based on my experience and from what I've seen during my trips to Samoa, come 7 September there will be a dramatic increase in the number of road crashes," Williams told the court.

"An increase in road crashes will naturally follow increase in injuries and possibly death."

Williams said he had studied the country's road standards, vehicle fleet and driving behaviour over two visits, and while conditions were generally good in town areas, rural regions were a serious concern.

The roads were narrow, riddled with potholes, and there was an "absolute lack of road safety measures", the newspaper reported.

Speed humps were placed randomly on roads, leaving drivers at risk of going "airborne" and virtually no one, including police, wore seatbelts.

There were few road markings or speed limit signs, tall vegetation obscured many corners and traffic law enforcement was virtually absent, Williams said.

"From what I can conclude, there has been no increase in traffic enforcement, police have one speed detection (camera) and there are a number of other issues," he said.

The other major problem was that Samoans drive US-style left-hand-drives, meaning drivers of those vehicles will be sitting on the outside of the road after the changeover.

The government's lawyer had suggested visibility would actually be improved from the outside of the road, but Mr Williams said this assumption was "crazy" as drivers could see 30% less.

If it goes ahead, Samoa will become the first country in four decades to attempt to switch the flow of traffic from one side of the road to another, after Iceland and Sweden in the 1960s.