September 3, 1967: Driving on the European mainland is now consistent when Dagen H arrives. Sweden finally switched from driving on the left to driving on the right. There was a flurry of activity prior to the switch. New signs and traffic lights were hung at each intersection and wrapped in black plastic sheeting. An advertising blitz along with consumer productions predated the move. For 40 years Swedes voted down each referendum advocating a switch. In 1955, 83% voted to keep driving on the left. In 1963, right hand driving was finally approved with four years to get people ready for the switch.
All Sweden’s neighbors drove on the right and many drivers owned left hand drive cars which led to many head on collisions in sparsely populated areas. On September 3, a Sunday, only essential traffic was permitted on the roads after midnight. At 4:50 AM, all traffic stopped. Drivers had ten minutes to change lanes and at 5 AM traffic was free to move again, all now in the right lane. Many workers tore the plastic covering off the new signs and traffic signals. In larger cities more hours were needed for the switch. Stockholm and Malmö streets were closed from 10 AM Saturday until 3 PM on Sunday.
One way streets presented further problems. Over 1,000 new buses were purchased with doors on the opposite side and another 8,000 buses were refitted with doors on both sides. Headlights on expensive cars had to be readjusted so as not to blind oncoming traffic. On September 4 there were 125 reported traffic accidents as opposed to 130-196 from the previous Mondays. No traffic fatalities were linked to the switch. In fact, fatalities dropped for two years, possibly because drivers were more vigilant after the switch.
Historical studies indicate traffic flowed on the left side of the road in the past. This permitted easier access to oncoming traffic, either to raise a hand in greeting or to draw a sword against an enemy. Today, about one-third of the world maintains left handed driving, predominantly Britain and her previous colonies, but some other countries as well. Each country must be consistent within its borders. When next to a country that drives on the other side of the road, there are procedures to follow at borders to get traffic flowing in the proper direction.
“If everything comes your way, you are in the wrong lane.” – Unknown
“Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.” – E.B. White
“Automobiles are not ferocious … it is man who is to be feared.” – Robbins B. Stoeckel
“The shortest distance between two points is under construction.” – Noelie Altito
This article first appeared at Examiner.com in 2009. Editor’s update: Bertha Benz is credited with taking the first road trip by automobile on August 5, 1888. She and her two sons travel to Pforzheim from Mannheim, a 66 mile journey. F.O. Stanley and his wife drove their Stanley Steamer automobile to the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire in 1899. Their publicity stunt covered only a 7.6 mile course and took over two hours going up. Coming down was a matter of putting the car in low gear and hoping the brakes held. Today driving is ubiquitous. Before getting behind the wheel, one should be aware of the rules of the road which can be quite different from place to place. Knowing how to actually work the car is another necessary skill. There are physical and mental skills involved in the operation of a car. Both are needed for a safe trip. Knowing where to steer is as important as knowing how; knowing appropriate speeds for road conditions is more than just looking at signage, as it also requires attention to weather conditions and other traffic.