WHEN the "Chunnel" -- the $16 billion tunnel connecting...

salmagundi

May 16, 1994

WHEN the "Chunnel" -- the $16 billion tunnel connecting England and France under the English Channel -- reaches full operation this fall, people and their cars will be whisked on dry land between the continent and the island of Great Britain in about half an hour.

The Chunnel has been hailed as still another instrument for uniting Europeans in the European Union. It may do much for trade, but there is one negative few talk about: The transition from right-hand to left-hand driving (and vice versa) will be more abrupt and consequently more dangerous.

It's one thing to sit in your car on a leisurely ferry ride, contemplating the shift to come. It's another to emerge from a tunnel after a few minutes' ride and have to adjust suddenly.

The adjustment actually comes in three parts: Not only are you driving on the "wrong side" of the road; you are driving on the "wrong side" of the car, and your gear shift is on the "wrong side" of the steering wheel. In England, drivers are further confounded by traffic circles -- or roundabouts -- which they must enter to the left while yielding to traffic from the right.

Roundabouts, of which there are thousands in England, are more terrifying, even to experienced drivers, than Washington's infamous traffic circles. The roundabouts nearest the car rental agencies at London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports are said to be as chaotic as a rush hour in Rome, as Americans and Europeans try to adjust to left-hand driving.

It's probably fortunate that, at least at the beginning, people won't drive the 31.4 miles of the Chunnel. (Cars will piggyback on trains.) But that day will come. When it does, perhaps on both sides there should be driving ranges for people to practice driving, turning and parking. On the British side, there should be two or three practice roundabouts. Such a move would do wonders for Anglo-French relations.

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