Govt to Push Left-Hand Steering Wheels on Future Car Imports

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 25 November 2014

RANGOON — The government plans to carry out a policy encouraging vehicle imports manufactured with left-hand steering columns, in an apparent effort to phase out their right-hand counterparts, which currently predominate on Burma’s roads and pose safety risks.

Commerce Minister Win Myint told Parliament on Monday that the policy would take effect next year, though he did not explicitly state that right-hand steering column vehicles would be banned under the policy.

“We’re planning to practice an import policy for left-handed cars. At the moment we’re allowing imports of any types of cars. We’re planning to facilitate left-handed cars next year,” Win Myint said.

Vehicles in Burma drive on the right-hand side of the road, but the majority of cars feature right-hand steering columns, leading to safety concerns because drivers’ vantage point is farther from oncoming traffic than it would be if the cars were left-hand columned. The steering wheel’s location is particularly inapt when drivers are attempting to overtake another vehicle.

As well as addressing a safety hazard, the policy, if implemented, would phase out one of the more bizarre legacies of Burma’s former military regime: Dating back to the invention of the automobile, drivers in Burma had driven on the left-hand side of the road, until Gen. Ne Win overnight ordered the traffic laws changed in 1970. Ever since, cars have driven on the right side of the country’s roads, but imports continued for decades to be fitted to the former traffic orientation.

No official explanation was ever given by the late dictator, and popular lore has it that the notoriously superstitious general was advised by his astrologer that the country had moved too far left politically.

Myat Thin Aung, US auto giant Chevrolet’s sole distributor in Burma, said he would welcome the new policy.

“I heard that the Ministry of Commerce is considering facilitating left-handed cars next year. It should be earlier than that, because most car accidents happen because of it [the right-hand steering columns],” he said.

Already a growing number of vehicles in Burma can be spotted with left-hand steering wheels.

As of last year, all new imported cars in showrooms have been left-handed. Several international brands’ showrooms have opened in Burma in recent years, including Ford, Mercedes Benz, Chevrolet, Land Rover and BMW.

Soe Tun, chairman of the Farmers Car Showroom and member of the Automobile Dealers Association, said he expected that the policy would be included in a broader automobiles bill currently being drafted.

“It has been more than two years since the Ministry of Industry and the Myanmar Engineering Society began drafting the Myanmar Automobile Act, said to be submitted to Parliament soon. Our Automobile Dealers Association representatives also participated in drafting the act. Through our discussions, we have concluded that the government should only allow imported cars that comply with the traffic rules in Myanmar,” he said last month.

President Thein Sein’s reformist government in 2011 began easing car import restrictions that had put foreign vehicles out of reach for the vast majority of Burmese. The three years since have seen imported cars flood the market, the vast majority of which have been used vehicles.

According to Ministry of Commerce figures, there are about 600,000 vehicles in Burma, some 100,000 of which are trucks.