APIA, Samoa – Sometime in the early morning hours of Sept. 7, residents of this small Pacific island nation will stop their cars, take a deep breath, and do something most people would think is suicidal: Start driving on the other side of the road.
Samoa is about to become what's believed to be the first nation since the 1970s to order its drivers to switch from one side of the road to the other. That's spawned an islandwide case of road rage. Opponents have organized two of the biggest protests in Samoan history, and a new activist group -- People Against Switching Sides, or PASS -- has geared up to fight the plan.
The prime minister who hatched Samoa's scheme, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, refuses to do a U-turn. Road-switch opponents are just trying to rattle the government, he says. He has compared a prominent opponent of the switch to a local "avaava" fish -- a sea creature that swims in shallow waters and eats garbage, an insult in Samoan culture.
The main reason for Samoa's switch is that two of its biggest neighbors, Australia and New Zealand, drive on the left-hand side, whereas Samoa currently drives on the right, as in the U.S. By aligning with Australia and New Zealand, the prime minister says, it will be easier for poor Samoans to get cheap hand-me-down cars from the 170,000 or so Samoans who live in those two countries. It could also help more people escape tsunamis, says Mr. Tuilaepa.
It all "makes common sense," says Mr. Tuilaepa in an interview in his office overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the capital city of Apia. Mr. Tuilaepa, who sports a wave of fluffy whitening hair and wears flip-flops, has run the country for more than a decade.