H-Day

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars: In 2016, the Swedish Tourist Association announced a new service called the Swedish number. If you dial the telephone number +46 771 793 336, you will be connected with a random Swede.

Operator: You will still be connected to a random Swede somewhere in Sweden.

Will Coley: Hello.

Random Swedish Man: Hello?

Random Swedish Woman: Hello and welcome to Sweden.

Will Coley: Oh hi, is this a random Swedish person.

Random Swedish Man: Yeah. This is a Swedish person. Living in… (fades out)

Roman Mars: Cold calling the Swedes is Will Coley.

Will Coley: I’m a reporter and I have one question for you. What do you think of when I tell you the date 3rd of September 1967.

Random Swedish Man: 1967?

Random Swedish Woman: 1967 September 3rd.

Random Swedish Man: Uh, could maybe be…

Random Swedish Woman: The left to right.

Random Swedish Man: Yeah, that’s when we changed to right-hand traffic.

Will Coley: We called about a dozen Swedes and, for the most part, if they were alive and in-country for any part of the 1960s, the date September 3rd 1967 was a hugely important and heralded.

Random Swedish Man: Dagen Ho.

Roman Mars: Dagen Ho. H-Day.

Random Swedish Man: Yeah. H-Day. Yeah.

Will Coley: Short for “Högertrafikomläggningen” or something like that, I think. Sorry.

Random Swedish Woman: “Högertrafikomläggningen”

Will Coley: Meaning the right hand traffic diversion.

Roman Mars: H-Day was the day that 7.8 million Swedes switched the side of the road they drive on from the left side to the right. It would be the most massive overhaul in driving infrastructure that any country had ever seen.

Roman Mars: Historically, if you’re riding a horse, generally you want to keep to the left so that you can use your right hand to greet passers by, or you know, whack them with a sword. But with the advent of the horse-drawn carriage, there were some conditions in which it made sense to stick to the right and customs could vary by country.

Will Coley: And as cars became more common, they followed the same laws that were established for horse drawn traffic.

Roman Mars: Up until 1967, Sweden drove on the left side of the road.

Will Coley: Which, set it apart from its neighboring countries – Finland, Norway and Denmark – all of which drove on the right.

Roman Mars: And this presented problems.

Anders Englund: The biggest problem was the accidents with Swedish drivers abroad and the visitors in Sweden who also had difficulties with the change from right-hand driving to left-hand driving. These accidents increased continuously.

Will Coley: This is psychologists Anders England. When he says left-hand driving he means driving on the left-hand side of the road. When Anders started working with the Swedish government in the 1960s, they were tired of seeing Swedes getting into car accidents abroad and having tourists and truck drivers from other countries getting into car accidents in Sweden.

Anders Englund: There was also some motor vehicles were adapted to right-hand driving.

Will Coley: Swedish car companies made vehicles that were meant to be driven on the right so they could be exported more easily. Bu, these cars also found their way onto roads in Sweden.

Anders Englund: That was a problem.

Roman Mars: Namely having your steering wheel on the outside edge of the road.

Anders Englund: Overtaking or passing, as you say in your country, you don’t see the oncoming car.

Roman Mars: It was a big mess. The Swedish government thought it could get a lot better if they just switched what side of the road they drove on, if they could drive on the right like most of Europe. Legislative action to switch driving side had been attempted before – a few times actually – but it always failed.

Will Coley: And then, in the early 1960s, the Swedish government thought that this could be the time. They put it to a public vote asking the Swedish populace to decide.

Roman Mars: The answer from the people was a resounding “No”.

Anders Englund: 83% of the people in Sweden voted for keeping left-hand driving.

Roman Mars: So the government just went ahead and did it anyway.

Anders Englund: Sweden likes to be looked upon as a democratic country and, despite that, the government can decide that we must change this.

Will Coley: Anders England served as part of the team that would help make that change.

Anders Englund: I was secretary in the scientific working group.

Will Coley: As secretary, Anders supervised three teams. One assessing what methods they should deploy for an educational campaign. One trying to forecast what problems they might encounter.

Anders Englund: And the third one for mass media.

Will Coley: One of Anders’s is jobs is helping to come up with informational materials for the switch – like a pamphlet that would explain what would be different, what to watch out for, and what rules to follow.

Roman Mars: And just take a second to think about what kind of a job this is. If you’ve ever been in a car driving on the opposite side of what you’re used to, everything feels wrong. So you need to teach people to identify what is actually correct, even though it feels wrong, and what’s actually just wrong-wrong.

Will Coley: The pamphlet Anders and his team worked on shows where your car goes when you make a right turn or a left turn, how to pass, what pedestrians should be aware of…

Anders Englund: How they should move, how they should drive.

Will Coley: The two most important things that the pamphlet did was 1) to familiarize Sweden with a new traffic sign…

Anders Englund: The six formed sign with a leaning edge in the middle.

Roman Mars: A hexagon sign with an “H” in it.

Will Coley: “H” for höger or right. These signs would be visible on the roads after the switch and there were also little stickers with an “H” you could put on the inside of your windshield to remind yourself while you’re driving.

Roman Mars: In fact you might still spot an H sticker inside some of the older cars in Sweden.

Will Coley: The second super-important part of the public education campaign was the date of the switch. September 3rd 1967. Dagen Ho. H-Day.

Roman Mars: The pamphlet was a good start and getting people ready for H-Day but soon the government realized they needed to bring out the big guns. They wanted to unleash their nation’s most effective weapon for penetrating people’s hearts and minds.

Will Coley: Pop music.

… “Keep to the Right Svensson” Song …

Will Coley: Sweden’s television station had put out a competition to come up with the best song to teach people about H-Day. The winner? The Telstars with “Håll dig till höger, Svensson”.

Roman Mars: Translation “Keep to the Right, Svensson”.

Will Coley: “Svensson” being a stereo typically common Swedish last name like Smith or Jones. There’s also a bit of wordplay here. In Swedish, keeping to the right is shorthand for being faithful to your spouse. Going left, means having an affair.

Roman Mars: The government had spent four years getting the country ready. The official H-Day pamphlet had gone out to every Swede. The “Svensson” song had lodged itself in people’s brains. PSAs had saturated the airwaves.

Will Coley: September had arrived. The evening of the 2nd became the morning the 3rd.

Roman Mars: Everyone knew the drill.

Will Coley: H day was here. All non-essential traffic was banned from the roads from late night to early morning. Most cars were kept off the road. The only people on the roadways were construction crews, taxi drivers who were given the okay from the government…

Roman Mars: And a handpicked few. Like this guy.

Bo Holmström: It was great fun. There were very few cars out in Stockholm and I had like one of the very few who got permission to drive at night when it was forbidden.

Will Coley: This is Bo Holmström.

Bo Holmström: Well I’m Bo Holmström. I’m a Swedish journalist. I’ve been working since 1960 in the television as a television reporter. In 1967, I was working on the switch to right-hand drive traffic and doing a lot of stories about it.

Will Coley: Bo is actually a pretty famous broadcast journalist. Kind of like a Swedish Tom Brokaw. At the time, this was the big story.

Bo Holmström: Oh yeah. We were on the air almost all night. And the day after too. Transmitting from different points in Sweden.

… Archived Bo Holmström Tape” …

Will Coley: Work crews were out putting out the hexagonal H signs – the ones reminding you to drive on the right. Plus they had to flip around and move pretty much every street sign in the country.

Bo Holmström: What I saw was changing of signs. Joining them the other way and changing of signs at bus stops.

Random Swedish Person: It’s such a great feeling to be biking around. 10 years old and there was no traffic.

Will Coley: A few of the random Swedes that we reached on the phone were also there on H-Day.

Another Random Swedish Person: And then of course they have a song that was going repeatedly on the radio. I can’t recall it… “Drive to the Right, Svensson” or something.

Roman Mars: Roundabouts were reconfigured for people to go counterclockwise instead of clockwise, freeway off-ramps became on-ramps, temporary bus stops were set up in the middle of the street to accommodate buses that now had doors on the wrong side. At 4:50am a horn blared across Stockholm and a loudspeaker announced, “Now is the time to change over”. And then under the direction of thousands of traffic cops dispatched around the country, all of the cars in Sweden made their way to the right.

Will Coley: For the most part, the H-Day transition team had accounted for everything, but it was disorienting and not everyone was a happy camper.

Bo Holmström: Some people said they got lost. They were in their own city. They had been driving there for years. They were used to taking a one way street, for example, and it was still one way but the other way so they couldn’t go where they wanted. I remember one old lady or middle-aged lady sitting in the passenger seat in one car we stopped and she was mad. Mad as hell. Saying “We didn’t want this. We voted against it.” Everybody was against going over. Them politicians – they didn’t start a war but they’re going gonna get thousands of people killed in the traffic instead.

Will Coley: But here’s the really amazing thing about H-Day, and the shift as a whole. The total number of traffic-related deaths on H-Day was zero. In fact, the total number of accidents went down for a while.

Bo Holmström: There were a lot of people thinking that this should be a catastrophe. There should be thousands of dead people in the traffic. It didn’t.

Roman Mars: Likely because everyone was so freaked out about driving on what felt like the wrong side of the road that, for a while, everyone drove really slowly and carefully.

Roman Mars: A year after Sweden switched sides of the road, Iceland also switched to driving on the right to be more like the rest of Europe. The United Kingdom and Ireland notwithstanding. In the 1970s former British colonies, including Ghana and Nigeria, switched from left to right to be more like their neighbours in West Africa and the rest of the world.

Will Coley: Today, the vast majority of the world drives on the right and in places that do drive on the left, like in the UK, movements occasionally spring up trying to get the country to switch to the right.

Roman Mars: But there is one notable exception where a country went left.

Receptionist: Office of the Prime Minister of Samoa, how may I help you?

Roman Mars: Samoa.

Will Coley: Oh, hi this is Will Coley calling from New York.

Receptionist: Hello Mr. Coley.

Roman Mars: Samoa is an island republic in the South Pacific. Not to be confused with American Samoa which is just east of Samoa. In 2009, they did the opposite of Sweden and nearly every other country who made the switch. They went from driving on the right to driving on the left. Will Coley called up the guy responsible for the change.

Receptionist: Ok, hold on for a minute. I’ll transfer the call.

Will Coley: Ok, thank you so much.

Roman Mars: Yes, this is the actual hold music for the office of…

Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi Hello.

Will Coley: Hi. Prime Minister?

Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi: Yes. I am the Prime Minister of Samoa, Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi.

Will Coley: For Prime Minister Malielegaoi, switching to the left offered one major obvious benefit – aligning Samoa more closely with the biggest nearby economies; Australia, New Zealand and Japan; all of which drive on the left.

Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi: I would say it’s something that we have been thinking about for a long time. Mainly because we needed to import cheaper cars.

Roman Mars: Samoa wanted to import cheap used cars from nearby Japan.

Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi: Japan has the cheapest second-hand car market in the world.

Roman Mars: But cars in Japan are made to be driven on the left. So Samoa decided to make the switch to left-side driving.

Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi:It’s pure common sense.

Roman Mars: By all accounts, the day of the switch – September 7th 2009 – was really smooth. It probably helped that there were only a couple of major roads to modify. It began with a radio announcement from Prime Minister Malielegaoi.

Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi: Today, we will launch a great event that will be most helpful to our livelihood and that is to drive on the right-hand side of the road”. And the switch was magnificent. It was perfect.

Will Coley: That was great but you said right-hand. I think you meant left-hand, right?

Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi: Yeah, yeah, sorry, sorry. Yeah.

Roman Mars: Stick to the right, Svensson. Prime Minister Malielegaoi, to the left.

Comments (6)

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  1. Rooth

    I think that Burma may hold the distinction of “most massive overhaul in driving infrastructure” thanks, some surmise, to some astrologic advice (move to the right) given to the dictator in control in 1970. I’m sure it was not nearly as orderly as Sweden – there are still public buses imported from Japan that dump passengers out into the drive lanes.

  2. Mauricio

    Used Japanese cars built to drive on the Left side of the road, are shipped to Bolivia where they go through the steering-wheel switch to hide among the cars built for Right hand-side driving.
    http://www.la-razon.com/index.php?_url=/economia/DS-impidio-chutos-ingresen-Bolivia_0_1407459270.html
    These cars have the nickname “chutos” which means “cheap” or “of bad quality”. They’re popular mainly for their price point vs. a new car and are often used as Taxis. You may recognize a “chuto” next time you take a taxi in La Paz and sit next to the driver, where you may find a rare panel without a glove comparment… now THAT’S a chuto “chuto” ;-)

  3. Thomas Dierig

    Did the switch take place at 4:30 in the morning? Really? The picture from Kungsgatan lets me think that must have been in the afternoon.

  4. Likaccruiser

    Many of the assertions in this piece seem to likely to be from single sources and at best only part of the picture. Sweden’s car manufacturers made cars to be driven on the right, while the country drove on the left. Really? In the UK Volvos and Saabs – Swedish makes – have been very common for a very long time, well before 1967. Is it not possible that they were made both right and left hand drive? Like, well, just about every car model mass produced in Europe and Japan, ever. Sweden changed because of all the car accidents Swedish drivers had when driving overseas. Really? So there’s a terrible accident rate amongst Brits driving in Europe and amongst lorries driven by Europeans in the UK? Really? Have you ever driven a car on the “wrong” side of the road? (Actually gave you ever been outside of the USA might be a better question). It really ain’t that hard. Hmmm. Dubious and a bit weak.

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