The Day Sweden Switched Driving Directions

Swedish motorists, accustomed to left-side-of-the-road driving join the growing trend throughout Europe to cross over to right-side traffic flow. That was a crazy day for Sweden. Prior to 1967, Sweden, much like many other European countries, drove on the left. Most countries in the world in fact began driving on the left because that’s how carriages did it and carriages did it that way because that’s how horses did it.

The rule started in the first place because back in ye-olde-days most would brandish their sword on their right side so when riding they wanted to be able to respond to an oncoming attacker on the right side. Archeological evidence proves that left-side riding was norm throughout much of the ancient world. The shift to right-side riding came when freight wagons got larger. As trade became more common demand grew so teamsters—the old term for wagon drivers—started adding more and more horses to pull heavier and heavier loads.

There weren’t seats on these wagons so the teamsters just sat on a horse. Most chose to sit on the back-left horse so they could whip with their right-hand since the vast majority of people—especially at the time—were right-hand dominant. Therefore, the teamsters chose to ride on the right side of the road so that oncoming wagons could pass on their left and they could clearly see that their wheels were clear. Fast forward 200 years and 65% of the world’s population drives on the right side of the road, which, as it turns out, is the worse side to drive on.

You see humans are naturally right-side dominant. As we know, the vast majority of the worlds population is right-handed—about 90%—but the vast majority of the world is also right-eye dominant. Humans actually do have an eye that works better than the other. For about 70% of the worlds population thats the right eye. When driving on the left, the right eye will focus on oncoming traffic while the left will see what’s passing by. This may contribute to the slightly lower accident rate in left-side driving countries. Anyways, let’s get back to Dagen H—the name for the day Sweden switched. In 1955 Sweden held a referendum on the issue of driving directionality and a staggering 83% voted against changing the direction.

The national legislature known as the Riksdag promptly responded by deciding to make the change. The rational was that every single one of Sweden’s neighbors drove on the righ and most imported cars—which were the cheapest cars—were designed to be driven on the right. In the months leading up to Dagen H every intersection was outfitted with an extra set of signals and signs wrapped in black plastic. 8,000 busses were retrofitted with new doors on the right side and the rest were sold to Pakistan and Kenya. New lines were painted on the roads then covered in black tape. Milk cartons and underwear with the day’s logo were sold in stores around the country. Contests were held for songs about the change, then finally, on September 3rd, 1967 at 3pm the law switched, and the entire country had one enormous traffic jam as drivers slowly inched across the white line to get to the new normal.

No one died that day on Swedish roads… in fact, nobody died the day after as well. On the Monday after Dagen H there were only 125 collisions compared to the average of 164. It seemed that the switch worked. However, by 1969 collision rates were back to normal. It turned out that the roads were only safer because drivers were more cautious as they learned the new traffic patterns. I’ll end with an only somewhat related but interesting tidbit. The Geneva Conventions have a treaty that outlines international rules of the road including the rule that traffic directionality must be uniform throughout the same country. The vast majority of countries follow this rule with no problem, however, the good ol’ US of A holds the territory of the US Virgin Islands where all drivers drive on the left, and therefore the US is technically in violation of the Geneva Conventions which, as the no-longer-existent country of Yugoslavia knows, is kinda a big deal.


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