Bits & Pieces

July 22, 2011

Driving on the Left in Panama

The official date of birth of the automobile is given as January 1886 when the patent for the first automobile was issued to Karl Benz of Mannheim, Germany.  His vehicle was a three-wheeler powered by a water-cooled internal combustion, four-stroke gas engine with electrical ignition and differential gears producing 0.75 horsepower. (NOTE:  All sources I checked refer to this as a gas engine but fail to say whether it was gas or gasoline.)  Sixty miles away at Canstatt, another mechanical tinkerer, Gottlich Daimler, built a four wheeled car a few months later.  Eventually, their companies merged in 1926 to form Daimler-Benz AG, manufacturing the Mercedes-Benz vehicles.
First patented automobile by Karl Benz
At first, the vehicles were steered by handles, some of which resembled the tillers on sailboats and outboard motors with the driver sitting in the middle.  Soon, though, the steering was moved to the right, following the custom of wagons and coaches, and changed to a steering wheel.  As to which side of the road to drive through, in most countries, the left was the accepted rule until the Napoleonic days when it was changed to the right side in most European countries with the exception of England and its colonies.  In the United States, we began driving on both sides prior to the Revolution, depending on country of origin of the colonist.  After the Revolution, it became the unwritten rule that we would drive on the right.  However, our wagons and coaches remained driven from the right side.
Thus, when the automobiles came to be built in the USA, the steering was placed on the right.  The problem, however, was soon recognized by Ford, who changed the steering to the left on the 1908 models.  The others followed with Cadillac being the last in 1916.
First Cadillac came out in 1902 and  Ford 1908 Model T with steering wheel on right hand.
In Panama, driving was on the left due, it is said, to the fact that most coachmen came from the British islands in the Caribbean where they drove on the left.  As the traffic turned to cars rather than coaches, the traffic remained driving on the left.  But there was a big problem:  Almost all the cars came from the USA and they had steering on the left.  At first, when automobile traffic was small, most drivers thought this was an advantage as they felt they were less likely to drive off the narrow roads.  But as traffic increased, so did the tragic accidents caused by attempts to pass on the narrow winding interior "highways" of Panama.  The procedure was to swing out to the right side to see if the road was clear ahead and then pass.  Even on a straight road this is extremely dangerous.  In the winding roads of Panama, it was mostly fatal. 
Panamanian traffic policeman controls left-hand drivers on Central Avenue
by Santa Ana Plaza in Panama city prior to 1943.
By 1936 an effort was begun to make the change from left to right hand traffic.  The biggest objection came from bus owners who would have to absorb the costly procedure of changing the doors of their vehicles to the right hand side.  Aside from that, there was the customary objection to change.  The effort dragged on until World War Two started.  The infusion of additional military personnel and vehicles, as well as the many additional civilian personnel required to operate the canal and its proposed enhancement,
created a logistic problem of major proportions.  By 1943 it was evident that the change could no longer be delayed.  After months of studies, organization and promotion, the big day finally came:  April 15, 1943.  On the dawn of that day, only the horses had trouble when all the traffic in Panama changed from the left to the right.
Left is a photo from around 1930 with traffic driving on the left.  On the second photo we see the
traffic driving on the right side after April 1943.
It was a memorable day for drivers in Panama and the Canal Zone.  After weeks of publicity in the newspapers and radio, long instructions to the police forces of Panama and the Canal Zone, the Great Day had arrived.  At 5:00 AM of that April day, the sirens of the Firefighters Headquarters and all other whistles in the cities and townships throughout the nation blasted away for thee consecutive minutes.  All vehicles on the roads stopped and then, as if performing a slow ballet, everyone changed to the right hand side of the road.  To the complete surprise of everyone, the change took place without the slightest incident or inconvenience.
The press reported that the only ones that experienced any difficulty were the draft horses pulling wagons, which refused to change to the other side of the streets.  Apparently, the animals could not understand why they were not permitted to continue walking on the side they had always used.
Sources:  Panama Canal Review, Fall 1973, Eunice Richard;  Brian Lucas,;
Foto Flatau;  Century on Wheels, The Story of the American Automobile Industry, Pioneer Publications, Inc, 1987.

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas