Car News: Oversteer
H Day: When Sweden Switched to Driving on the Right -- in 1967
One of my all-time favorite automotive stories is that of "H Day," short for "Hogertrafik Day," which is the day in 1967 that Sweden switched from driving on the left side of the street (as they do in the U.K., Japan and Australia) to the right side of the street (as they do in the United States, Canada and China). Imagine this: An entire nation decides, on a carefully chosen day, to drive on the other side of the road. Collectively.
Here's the background: All mainland countries in Europe drive left-hand-drive vehicles on the right side of the road, as we do here in the U.S. Several European island countries -- Malta, Ireland, the U.K. -- do the opposite. Somehow, Sweden was also doing the opposite into the 1960s, even though all of its neighbors drove on the right like the rest of mainland Europe. This was in spite of the fact that 90 percent of Swedish people drove left-hand-drive vehicles, meaning they were on the wrong side of the road for the orientation of their cars.
So it made sense to switch. And, indeed, they decided to do just that. In 1963, the Swedish version of Congress approved a measure that would require traffic to drive on the other side of the road on some future date. The day of the switch was determined to be September 3, 1967, and the Swedish government undertook a marketing campaign around this date -- known as "H Day" -- like you've never seen before. According to Wikipedia, there was custom-made H Day underwear. They advertised it on milk cartons, and billboards, and the radio, and blah blah blah blah. They even created a custom H Day song entitled -- I swear this is true -- "Keep to the right, Svensson." Everyone knew H Day was coming.
Now, before I get into the actual mechanics of this change, let's talk about why switching sides is so difficult. Putting aside the obvious issues, where you have drivers forgetting about the change, and where the cars are (normally) configured for driving on the opposite side of the street, there are dozens of issues you might not even consider. For instance, city buses have their doors open to the curb, and that all has to be switched. Road signs face one way, on one side of the road, and that all has to be switched. Intersections need to be reconfigured, and new road lines need to be drawn. Automotive headlights illuminate the wrong area of the road. It's a total nightmare -- which is why nobody switches anymore, even though harmonizing traffic sides would probably make cars a lot cheaper.
So here's what Sweden did. On September 3, 1967, all nonessential traffic was banned from the roads from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. If you were on the roads at that time, you had to come to a stop at precisely 4:50 a.m. and sit there for 10 minutes until precisely 5:00 a.m., at which point you had to move to the other side of the road. And then, from that moment on, Sweden drove on the right.
Of course, it wasn't quite so simple. Major metropolitan areas continued to ban nonessential traffic for a few extra days while crews worked to change around intersections as necessary and install or uncover previously installed road signs. Many intersections were reshaped, and bus stations were moved. And previously sprayed road lines, which had been covered with black tape until H Day, were finally revealed.
Now, you're probably wondering about accidents, and that's the most interesting part of all of this. Before I get into that, a quick note: Sweden isn't the only jurisdiction that did this in recent years (though it is the most populous). Iceland switched sides in 1968, and American Samoa did it in 2009. And every single time traffic has switched, the same thing happens: Accidents actually decline. It seems that people are so worried and concerned the switch will cause accidents that they pay dramatically more attention to the road. But eventually, as people become accustomed to the change, accident levels return to normal -- as they did in Sweden within just a few years of H Day.
And so, there's the story of the time Sweden switched sides -- a wondrous event I only wish I could've witnessed in person. Perhaps I can relive the moment by singing along to an old copy of Keep to the Right, Svensson.
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.
Photo: Jan Collsioo