Editor's Own / History

The Day Sweden Swapped Sides

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At exactly 5am on Sunday 3rd September 1967 traffic across Sweden stopped, moved to the other side of the road, and drove on. It was the culmination four years work to bring Sweden in line with its neighbours, by driving on the right..


Alexander Brett

It’s something we don’t have to think about very often: which side of the road to drive on. Britain and its dominions have always kept left because, apparently, it meant a passer’s sword arm was in the right place. The French, their dominions, and now 62 per cent of other countries, drive on the right because it was Napoleon’s order. Changing sides is, to most countries, inconceivable.

Nevertheless, in the early twentieth century, with the advent of cars and their subsequent explosion of demand, several countries chose to change before it was too late. In the 1930s Nazi Germany imposed right hand traffic on all its territories, a liberated Korea swapped to the right in 1945, and Nationalist China in 1946. Sweden went right in 1967 and, though other countries have changed since – Iceland (from left to right) the following year, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone (from left to right) in the 1970s and Samoa (from right to left) as late as 2009 – its changeover remains most high-profile.

Sweden changing, in what became known as ‘Dagen-H’ (an abbreviation of the rather un-catchy ‘Högertrafikomläggningen’) was – though a referendum showed 80 per cent of the population disagreed – inevitable. Approximately 90 per cent of vehicles were left-hand drives and both Norway and Finland, with whom it shares land borders, drove on the right. As the number of registered cars reached 1.5 million – a figure expected to double over the next ten years – on 4th May 1963 the Rikstag pushed through Prime Minister Erlander’s plan with little political hindrance.

Over the next four years every junction and intersection was fitted with a new set of signs, signals and lines, covered with a layer of black tape to be unveiled on the day. Psychologists initiated an education programme that involved placing ‘Dagen-H’ logos on everything from milk cartons to T-shirts, and even included a ‘Dagen-H’ song contest, aired on national television (the winning entry, performed by The Telstars, was entitled Håll dig till höger, Svensson (Keep Right, Svensson), written by journalist Peter Himmelstrand).


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Members of Statens Högertrafikkommission, responsible for overseeing the change


On the morning of Sunday 3rd September 1967, the day of changeover, all non-essential traffic was banned from the roads between 1 and 6am. Any vehicles still on the road at 4:50am had to come to a complete standstill, change sides, and proceed again ten minutes later, at exactly 5am. In Stockholm, Malmö and some other towns, the traffic ban was longer – from 10am on Saturday to 3pm the next day – giving workers enough time to reconfigure more complex intersections.

That was the easy part. More complicated was what to do about public transport. Old buses were sold to left-driving Kenya and Pakistan, or retrofitted with right hand doors. Another thousand were purchased from surrounding countries. Trains did not switch sides, and drive on the left to this day. Trams, however, did. Sadly many of the tram systems, temporarily abandoned for ‘Dagen-H’, never made it back, and only the trams of Norrköping, Gothenburg, Nockebybanan and Lidingöbanan survive. The others were replaced with bus routes or, in Stockholm, the expanding ‘Tunnelbana’.

The move was strange and disorientating but, though they may have been reluctant pawns, it was one the Swedish public grew to accept as necessary. They were so good about it, in fact, that there was even an initial reduction in road accidents. Only 157 minor incidents were reported on the day itself and next Monday only 125, compared to a previous Monday norm of 130 to 198. Motor insurance also went down by about 40 per cent, though only six weeks later that percentage was back to normal, and by 1969 accidents were back at pre-‘Dagen-H’ levels. Now, with even more cars on the road, they are, sadly, only increasing.


 

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