updated 3/29/2006 5:37:10 PM ET 2006-03-29T22:37:10

Traffic engineers trying to ease congestion and reduce accidents in Kansas City have come up with an audacious idea for this side of the Atlantic: making people drive on the left side of the road.

Missouri Transportation Department officials considered a number of plans for the downtown Front Street approach to Interstate 435. But the one they settled on appears to be a national first. It involves briefly crisscrossing lanes and putting drivers on the left.

“When we first heard about it from one of our peers, of course we were skeptical,” said Josh Scott, a transportation planner who worked on the design. “But not only was it feasible, but it actually worked better from all of the other alternatives.”

Modeled after Versailles plan
Planners said they modeled their “diverging diamond” design after one in use in the French city of Versailles, where motorists drive on the right. The cost will be $6 million, or about half the $11 million that competing ideas were projected to cost. The project is to be started and finished in 2007.

Drivers will reach a traffic signal, then be guided to the opposite side of the road, which will be divided by a concrete median with glare screens to minimize the potentially disorienting sight of oncoming cars to the right. After about 600 to 700 feet, motorists reach another traffic signal and are returned to the right side of the road.

Ramps before the first and second lights will allow motorists to enter I-435. The design spares motorists from having to turn left in front of oncoming traffic to get onto the highway.

“Most of us look at it and we say, ‘What?”’ said Susan McCubbins, a transportation project manager for the state. “Then we think it through and we realize the safety and traffic advantages.”

FHA official: Concept could be seen more often
Doug Hecox, a Federal Highway Administration spokesman, said this was the first such use of the diverging diamond in this country, and he suggested it could be seen more often.

“The design is something that really has some potential,” he said.

In Ohio, engineers considered a diverging diamond as an alternative to reconstructing a bridge in Findlay. They ultimately decided to put off a new bridge and simply increase the number of lanes on the existing one, though engineers still have praise for the wrong-side-of-the-road design.

“From an engineering standpoint it makes a lot of sense,” said Eric Pfenning, an Ohio Transportation Department engineer. “Bottom line is you can move a lot of traffic with the design.”

Some have their doubts
Others are skeptical. Ray Mundy, director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said planners must be careful when copying designs used in Europe, where motorists are much more used to driving on both the left and right sides of the road.

“You’re so used to always going to that right side of the road, we just do it second nature,” he said. “We’re not used to changing our behavior based on the country we’re in, unlike in Europe.”

McCubbins said mistakes will happen with Kansas City’s diverging diamond, but not easily. “It would be very similar to someone going up the wrong ramp,” she said.

Most of the world drives on the right side of the road. Countries such as Britain, Australia, India and South Africa drive on the left.

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