...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Monday, September 03, 2007

The H-Day

This morning, I drank my morning tea while listening to the radio. The hosts discussed the 40th anniversary today of Sweden's biggest collaborative project yet, the so-called "starting point for safer traffic" that took 4 years of costly government propaganda before its execution on September 3, 1967. It was the day when Sweden changed from driving on the left side of the road to the right side: Dagen H (The H-Day), or Högertrafikomläggningen (Change to right-side traffic).

The above picture is Stockholm's Kungsgatan on the said day (a heavily trafficked Sunday street by the standards of the 60's?) Traffic direction was changed on 5:00 PM to make sure nobody forgot, which would have probably been the case if the change was done at midnight. Instead, poles and traffic signals were put up between 1 and 6AM the previous night. Between those times, anything but essential traffic was banned from the streets as the government made preparations for the change.

It's not that the Swedes were ill-prepared for the change, actually. It was an issue that had been brought up years before, repeatedly refused by the Swedes until the yes-votes won over in a 1955 referendum. Sweden was the only left-side driving country in Scandinavia at that time, which could have led to confusion during car trips abroad. After the approval in parliament in 1963, a huge propaganda and a 4-year education campaign followed to convince any other opposition, reduce confusion-related accidents, and to enforce a right-side drive mentality. Psychologists were hired for the education program, and PR stints included the sale of items with H-Day logos, including ladies' underwear (which actually by today's standards, look like briefs).

The propaganda also covered little details, such as that people should be in good mood during the change day in order to decrease road-rage and impatience-related accidents. "A good temper is a big help," they reminded the motorists. The message worked and there was little hassle on the day itself. Only in neighboring city of Linköping was there any commotion at all. There was heavy car- and bike- traffic along Drottninggatan there (which if I may add is still heavily trafficked today!), and many even went out of their houses just to look at how the cars were managing. But back to the planning, the government also made preparations for eventual adaptation to the rule. To make sure the Swedes also stuck to the right side, some 8,000 policemen and 10,000 volunteers watched street corners around the country for weeks. There were no unusual reports, however. Swedes are, for the large part, traffic law abiders.

In the end, the so-called step to safer traffic paid off. Since Sweden had left-hand drive cars then to begin with, right-side driving was in fact safer and reduced accidents from the very first Monday it was executed. After 40 years, they were also able to compute that car-related deaths reduced from an average of 1,300 to a mere 450 per year, even though the amount of cars have more than doubled (This of course has something to do with other traffic laws as well, and not just with the change of lanes). Besides, now you can drive from Sweden to mainland Europe while staying on the same side of the road. Safety and comfort in one ;-)

The costs? Public buses had to be changed to those with doors on the right side (200 million kronor), tram lines were adapted to right-side traffic (60 million kronor), the public had to be educated (another 50 million kronor. Costs were shouldered by taxes, of course.) Then Stockholm just got rid of their tram lines altogether, and some oldies just gave up driving rather than adapting to the new law.

BTW, there's an interesting piece of trivia at the Swedish Wikipedia on the H-Day. Apparently, warning signs like the famous Swedish "warning for moose / elk crossing" had to change as well. The animals now cross from the right. The reason for this was so that drivers could be psychologically ready for the animals appearing from the nearer (right) side. It just goes to show how these seemingly useless details figure in large decisions -- and how things we think have been there forever (like right-side driving) may not be as "old" as we imagine them to be.


Blogger Cheryl said...

amazing attention to the little details! :D natuwa ako sa reminder on good mood, hehe

10:42 AM

Anonymous lea said...

laughed so hard at the photo :D

9:54 AM


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