So ubiquitous has motoring become throughout the world that learning to drive and passing the driving test have become rites of passage, on par with leaving school, getting married or getting your first job. Once you’ve passed the test and got that car you’d had your eye on for a while, you can be fairly confident – barring any serious accidents, of course – that your biggest motoring hurdle is over. The same couldn’t be said for drivers in Sweden, exactly fifty years ago, as all drivers throughout the country would henceforth have to get used to driving on the right-hand side of the road rather than the left.
Sweden was in the fact the last country in continental Europe to switch from left-hand to right-hand driving. For many years the country’s authorities had been grappling with the difficulties of being surrounded geographically by right-hand-driving countries, and how switching over would make a lot of practical and economic sense, given the increasing trade links with its neighbours.
Time was that travelling on the left-hand side of the road was the norm: this was certainly the case with the Roman Empire. In later ages, from medieval times onwards, horse riders would typically ride on the left, so that it was easier if they had draw their swords and defend themselves from possible attackers. Then, from 18th century, wagon-riders (known as teamsters in America) would start to ride on the right-hand side, as they tended to have a clearer view of the wheels of oncoming wagons that way.
Statistically, in fact, left-hand driving is actually safer than right-hand driving: the slightly lower accident rate in countries where they drive on the left seems to bear this out. This may be because not only are most of us right-handed (about 90% of the world’s population), but most of us are also right-eyed – ie our right eye can see things better than the left eye – and because of this drivers in left-side driving countries have a clearer view of potential hazards coming in the opposite direction.
Despite the above trends, however, right-hand side driving is the norm in around 65% of the world’s independent countries – with Great Britain, Ireland, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Tanzania, Namibia, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana chief among the minority of states with left-hand side driving. In the Americas only drivers in Guyana and Suriname drive on the left.
But back to Sweden: the nation had had a referendum in 1955, in which around 83% opposed plans to change from left- to right-sided driving. Nonetheless, for better or worse the government decided to go ahead and implement the change anyway. Cars, buses and trucks were methodically replaced with ones with left-side steering wheels. Whatever vehicles couldn’t be re-adapted were simply sold to Pakistan and Kenya. Thousands of road signs were prepared to put on the other side of each road (except that they were wrapped in black plastic), and new lines were painted on the roads, but were covered with black tape that could easily be lifted on the switchover day. The nation was prepared for the switchover with the Dagen H (Day H – Day of right-hand traffic) logo being stamped on milk cartons and clothing.
Finally, on the Day itself – Sunday 3 September 1967, at 3:00pm – there was one enormous traffic jam across Sweden, as thousands of vehicles slowly moved from the left-hand side of the road to the right. Incredibly, there were no fatal accidents anywhere in the country on Dagen H, and the accident rate remained low over the next two years – though this could be because drivers were moving more slowly than usual, in order to acclimatize themselves to the new system. After 1969, however, the accident rate returned to its pre-Dagen H level. Nonetheless, Sweden’s then Minister of Communication (and future Prime Minister), the late Olof Palme, pronounced Dagen H a success:
This is a very large change in our daily existence, our everyday life. The doubts have naturally been great. But our innate hesitancy towards a fundamental transformation of our daily traffic environment has given way before a rational internationalism, before a reform that we are confident will benefit traffic safety. I dare say that never before has a country invested so much personal labor, and money, to achieve uniform international traffic rules.
And what are the prospects of such a change happening in the UK? Er, none! At around the same time the Swedes were getting used to driving on the other side of the road, Britain’s Department of Transport actually considered a British right-hand switchover, but in the end decided against it, given the immense cost that would have been involved, and the hazards likely in built-up areas. Given the country’s innate conservatism (witness the furore five years ago over proposals to change clocks in the country from GMT to Central European Time – which the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens sniffily dismissed as “Berlin Time”), whatever the benefits of what Olof Palme called “rational internationalism”, it’s never going to happen, especially not now Brexit is looming ever closer on the horizon, and the UK is increasingly distancing itself from its European neighbours. It’s a case, literally and figuratively, of ‘you stick to your side of the road, and we’ll stick to ours’…