On September 3, 2007, it will be 40 years to the day since Sweden switched from driving on the left side of the road to the right side. Here is a short story of how it came to happen.
Traffic in Sweden – if the word can be applied for horses, oxen and carts – started to use the right side of the road in 1718 and did so until 1734, when suddenly left-hand traffic was introduced. Why? No one really knows. Maybe it was to have the swordhand – right for most people – closest to the enemy when meeting on horseback. And on the left side it stayed for more than 200 years.
In 1916, however, the Swedish parliament acknowledged left-hand traffic by law, but every year between 1920 and 1939, the parliament discussed whether to stay on the left side or move over to the right side of the road, which Sweden's neighbour countries in Scandinavia and the rest of the continent were already using. Nothing happened though.
Switching side against the people's will
In 1955 a national referendum was held and there was strong campaigning from both sides. Right side campaigners used rational arguments based on facts, like safer overtaking. The "lefties" played on people's long-time habits and emotions; "Do you want to see your mother killed?"
Of course such arguments paid off. The result was a landslide victory to stay on the left side –83 per cent against 15 per cent of the voters. Nevertheless, strong lobbying for switching side continued and this eventually led to the parliament deciding in 1963 that Sweden should eventually make the transition from left-hand traffic to right-hand traffic in 1967. This also led to the establishing of the Swedish National Traffic Safety Board during this period. Preparations for the switch started.
On September 3, 1967, at 04.50 in the morning, the traffic everywhere in Sweden was directed over to the right side of the road and stopped. Everthing stood absolutely still for 10 minutes, and at 05.00, when it started again, all road users in Sweden from heavy trucks to cyclists were already on the right side of the road, and they have stayed there since.
Left: The magic H date and a very clever symbol to remember it by. Right: Kungsgatan in Stockholm on the 3rd of September 1967, 04.50 in the morning. The traffic is directed from the left to the right side of the street and halted. A lot of people witnessed this happen in spite of the early morning hour. There is a nice black/white Volvo Duett police vehicle standing by the kerb in the lower right corner of the picture.
Roads, crossings, roundabouts, flyovers etc had already been redesigned and some 360,000 road signs were changed during the night. The date had also been preceeded by an intensive national campaign, informing people about what was going to happen that day.Some 130,000 reminder signs – a large H for Höger (right in Swedish) – had been put up everywhere along streets and roads, and most cars had an H-sticker on the dashboard in front of the driver in order to remind him or her. Very few cars in Sweden were right-hand drive at the time, despite the fact that Swedish road users had been living with left side traffic for 233 years!
There was also a temporary but strict speed limit of 30 kph in built-up areas and 50 kph on all other roads during September 3, which was a Sunday. In total, only some 150 minor accidents were reported during that day. The idea worked very well. The total cost of the transition at the time was SEK 628 million, appr equivalent to EUR 64 million.
Bye bye to unlimited speed
After this, it was goodbye forever to unlimited speed on Swedish roads which had been allowed outside built-up areas until September 1967. Speed limits became a reality to live with, and have been with us ever since. This in a way contradicts the trend that started some two years before the left side/right side transition: a reduction of accidents which was at its lowest number at the time of the switch. A contributing factor was also the introduction of the state-controlled annual vehicle inspection which got a lot of bad vehicles off the road. The number of accidents then slowly rose again and in 1970 was almost back at the 1965 level.
During the whole month of September 1967, 59 people were killed in Swedish traffic and 1,077 people during the entire year of 1967. The year before, 1966, 99 people were killed in September and 1,313 during the whole year. This may be explained by the fact that drivers were more alert just after the switch but gradually relaxed and fell back into old routine behaviour as time went by. And if you had to react quickly, maybe "with your spine", in a dangerous situation, you sub-consciously made the wrong turn i.e. to the left.
In 1975, the use of safety belts became compulsory in Sweden which in turn had a positive effect on the statistics and in 1977 daytime running lights also became law. Since then, safety belt laws have been enforeced in practically every civilized country and also driving with lights on during the day is also more and more common.
Why were pre-1967 Volvos left hand drive?
Comes the question why Volvos were offered with left-hand drive in Sweden during the days of left-hand traffic. Let us quote Volvo president Assar Gabrielsson from chapter 74 of his sales handbook, dated 1936:
"When automobiles first appeared in Sweden, roads were narrow and twisting. It was very difficult to pass a horse and cart or another car, and you really had to concentrate on the left shoulder of the road. American cars were always delivered with their steering wheels on the left side, and for such a small market as Sweden they were reluctant to change their cars to right-hand drive. Consequently, salesmen of American cars in Sweden often exaggerated the importance of the left shoulder. Through this, the Swedish people has become used to have the steering wheel on the left side, in spite of Sweden having left-hand traffic. In most other countries, the steering wheel is located at the right side when the traffic is left-hand, or at the left when traffic is right-hand. We at Volvo are fully convinced that taking the road standard into consideration, the left shoulder is of little or no importance. It is much more important to have a clear view of the road ahead when overtaking. Therefore, the most logic thing would be that Volvos were made with right-hand drive. In spite of this, we have kept left-hand drive because we do not feel that we have to be pioneers in this area. We believe that we would only meet resistance from our customers and create extra work for our dealers if we only delivered right-hand drive Volvos. We will therefore continue to sell left-hand drive cars. Volvo trucks and buses, however, can be delivered with left-hand drive or right-hand drive at customer request."
Be that how it may. The logical thing at the time would still have been to have right-hand drive cars in left-hand traffic but very few cars, most of them British, were right-hand drive
in Sweden at the time. The American influence was so strong that Swedes merely accepted the facts as they were. One must remember that American cars topped the Swedish registration statistics until 1948 when Volvo took over the top position (from Chevrolet). The truth is probably that is was much too expensive to convert cars for the relatively small Swedish market. And this continued over the years to follow. When right-hand drive Volvos could be had in Sweden, after 1967, the only people that would use them were countryside postmen and disabled people.
As a paradox, though, Swedish railways still run on the left on double tracks, as a reminiscence of old times maybe. No doubt this will also be "harmonized" in due time.