Home Cars The day Sweden lurched to the right and never looked back

The day Sweden lurched to the right and never looked back

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Fifty-four years ago this week something remarkable happened in the land of Sweden. The country turned to the right and has never looked back. On Dagen H, 3 September 1967, the game of musical chairs proceeded. When the music stopped, so did all the traffic. When it all started again, after a brief pause sanitaire, everyone resumed driving but on the opposite side of the road.

Sweden was one of the few remaining countries in Europe that hadn’t taken to driving on the right by the mid-sixties. The others remain to this day: the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, Malta and Cyprus. Even Gibraltar defected to the rightists at some time in the past. There is an apocryphal story that right-hand driving was foisted on Europe by Emperor Napoleon, but hard evidence for this theory is lacking.

God's in his heaven, the steerig wheel's on the left, and all's left with the world. Even Henry Ford knew how to pander to the British market... Image Fuji X100T
God’s in his heaven, the steering wheel’s on the left, and all’s left with the world. Henry Ford certainly knew how to pander to the British market… Image Fuji X100T

Once upon a time, when travellers first realised that it might be a good idea to stay on one side of the road, it made sense to ride or walk on the left. That way, one’s right hand was free to draw the sword and grapple with the oncoming traffic. It was probably arranged to encourage road rage. In fact, though, there is no practical reason to choose either the right-hand or the left-hand side of the road. It’s just something that happened, almost by chance.

Dithering digits

However, since the introduction of car infotainment and the advent of Tesla-style control screens, right-hand drivers do have a distinct advantage. Because their steering wheel is on the left, the right hand is free to play with all the electronics in a more efficient way than is possible when using the relatively dithery left-hand digits (unless you’re left-handed, in which case you’re better off in London than Lisbon).

Driving on the left has its advantage and it is a quaint custom still practised in 75 countries of the world. But how we have iPads in the centra of the car, right-handed drivers sometimes have difficulty guiding the digits to the right soft button (Image Leica Monochrom Typ 246 and 50mm Apo Summicron)
Driving on the left has its advantages (we’re told) and it is a quaint custom still practised in 75 countries of the world. But now we have iPad control panels in the centre of our cars, right-handed drivers sometimes have difficulty guiding the left index finger to the required soft button (Image Leica Monochrom Typ 246 and 50mm Apo Summicron)
Majority rules: Left-hand drive for right-hand drivers, and the Tesla screen can be addressed with the dominant digit (if you're right-handed). If not, better go and live in London... (Image Leica Q2)
Majority rules: Left-hand drive for right-hand drivers, and the Tesla screen can be addressed with the dominant digit (if you’re right-handed, that is). If not, better go and live in London… (Image Leica Q2, converted in Silver Efex Pro 2)

But back to 1967 in Sweden. Changing the driving rule is one of the biggest logistical challenges that could face any country. I remember writing about H Day (H stands for Högertraffik or Right Traffic) when the changeover took place. I made quite a stir internationally. At the time, I wondered whether Britain would ever contemplate making a similar switch, which would have been exponentially more complex than, say, converting from pounds and ounces to grams and kilograms. The answer then was a very firm no. In comparison with Sweden at the time, the task of converting British roads and junctions would have been almost impossible, if only because of the denser population and sheer complexity of the road network.

British muddle

As for the British, we couldn’t even change over from gallons to litres without getting stuck at the pumps. To this day we buy fuel in liters but discuss “miles per gallon”. We use meters for most things but still have speed limits in miles-per-hour and distances in yards and miles. Over the years, we’ve become used to our mixed weights and measures and we’ve given up protesting. Everyone seems content with the current muddle.

Sweden had been working towards Dagen H for a decade or more. Buses had been converted, newer cars were already equipped with steering wheels on the left, road junctions had been constructed for a quick changeover. Although it is said that some UK highways were constructed with ambidextrous junctions, in preparation for a possible R Day, I do not believe there has ever been a serious intent to change.

Does it matter? Well, for Great Britain and Ireland, being islands, it doesn’t matter all that much. Nor is it a problem for Malta and Cyprus for the same reason. It does become a problem where there are land borders, however, and one such is between Hong Kong and China. No doubt converting Hong Kong to right-hand traffic, complex as it would seem, must be on the cards. If for no other reason, it would send a clear message that the days of British influence are over. If this does happen, it will put Dagen H into perspective as a relatively minor inconvenience. It could also spell doom for the Ding Ding, trundling through Central and down to Happy Valley.

When this early 1930s DeSoto hit the roads of the USA there was no doubt: Steering on the left, drive on the right. It's only natural, isn't it? But some other countries still take an opposting view... (Image Leica Q2)
When this DeSoto hit the roads of the USA in the early thirties, there was no doubt in Motown: Steering on the left, drive on the right. It’s only natural, ain’t it? But some other countries still take an opposing view… (Image Leica Q2 converted in Silver Efex Pro 2)

Thou shalt drive on the right

Living in the heart of Europe or America, it is easy to imagine that driving on the right is the Eleventh Commandment, ordained celestially. Yet left-side driving is still mandatory over one-sixth of the world’s landmass. No fewer than 75 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan and much of south-east Asia, still drive on the left. In the right-hand camp are 165 countries, but that’s far short of world domination.

Between 1919 and 1986 34 countries, including Sweden, changed from the left to the right. But I suspect that the die is now cast for most places unless political considerations encroach as they may do in Hong Kong.

As a driver, can you switch easily from left to right and vice versa? I’ve always given a resounding affirmative to this question. British and Irish motorists emerge from ship or tunnel in Calais and take to the opposite side of the road like so many ducks to water. I’m sure it’s the same in other countries, even ones with land borders.

Only on the very first trip, as a new driver, is it a worry. After that, you just go with the flow, although it does pay to concentrate when driving on narrow country roads with little accompanying traffic. Yet having the steering wheel on the “wrong” side can be a minor hindrance in overtaking manoeuvres and, more frustratingly, at toll booths and car-park exits where the business department ends up aligned with the passenger window. It’s ok if you have a compliant passenger, but hell if you are driving alone.

Right or left, though, it’s all the same in the end. Macfilos readers, being intrepid and well-travelled to an person (note the inclusivity, ten bonus points for that), have surely sampled driving on the “wrong side”. But has any reader never tried the dark side? Now’s the time to confess…

34 COMMENTS

  1. I remember spending an hour ashore in Stockholm, one quiet August Sunday morning, and was astonished to see multiple traffic lights at junctions, with the newest blindfolded to avoid confusion. It must have been days before changeover day. Deep in my archives I may have a picture or two. But no time at present, to search. I do recall drivers were perplexed by the impending change.

  2. I remember Cliff Michelmore (radio and TV presenter) nipping over to Sweden with a film crew for ‘Tonight’ – the TV programme – to provide an insight into ‘before’ and ‘after’.

    And I seem to remember that only HALF the cars were allowed back onto Swedish roads on the first day after the change-over – it depended on your number plate – so that there were fewer cars to bump into each other!

    I’ve never had a problem switching between driving on the left or right (..in the UK, USA, France and the rest of mainland Europe, NZ, Australia, Oman, Greece, South Africa, etc..) except in Malta, where they drive – or certainly drove – straight down the centre!

    (My Beloved gets confused when it snows: she associates snow with being in Germany, and swaps over to the right ..but once with disastrous consequences! My only road accidents have been very slowly reversing into a Bentley, and once into a Holden. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must just go and check my tyre (tire) pressures..

    • You are probably right on the half-and-half based on number plates. I seem to recall that too.

      I also agree about driving in Malta. I hired a car there a couple of years ago and didn’t feel at home on the roads, despite driving on the left. I also found the speed limits erratic and badly signed, resulting in a fine. I suspect it’s a sort of tourist trap. Next time, if there is a next time, I’ll stay in Valletta and take day trips on a donkey.

      • Valletta ..now you’re talking!

        That brings back more memories: I was – and a whole load of other journalists were – invited there by Polaroid (..remember them?..) for the intro of some new SX70 film. (Why Malta? ..Because it was always sunny, as far as I could tell.)

        But after the 1st day, what more could you say – or shoot – with self-developing Polaroid film? ..so off I went to see my pal John Stivala, who said “let’s take a trip around the bay”, but first we had to find a car battery or two to start his boat engine, as his was flat. (Apparently, the shape matters.)

        So with tattered jeans – that battery acid sure burns holes in denim! – we tottered down to the quay, and then motored out to sea, and toward Gozo and back.

        Er, next day at the Polaroid conference everyone was so envious of my ‘trendy’, right-up-to-date, smart, hole-burned jeans “..Where d’you get those? Which shop?”

        (Somehow I’d jumped six points in the others’ estimation!..!)

  3. I was on a Boy Scout trip and we drove up to Norway watching all the duplicate signs and crossed the border where there was an X configuration in the road. On the way back after H day 7th we just continued straight on. Quite exciting for a 16 year old. Ther was no problem crossing form Denmark to Sweden as e was no bridge just a ferry.

  4. I was on a Boy Scout trip and we drove up to Norway watching all the duplicate signs and crossed the border where there was an X configuration in the road. On the way back after H day 7th we just continued straight on. Quite exciting for a 16 year old. Ther was no problem crossing form Denmark to Sweden as e was no bridge just a ferry.

  5. Trains in France and Belgium run on the left, but on the right in Netherlands and Germany. In some places, there are flyovers at the border to allow the crossover to take place smoothly, but in other less busy places crossover is on the level, so creating much potential for delays.

    In France, the trains run on the right in Alsace, becase it was part of Germany when the railways were built and has never been changed, and on the Paris Metro where it seems to have been done just to avoid compatibility with the SNCF lines.

    I belive that this is because the first lines in France were built by British engineers who used the left-line running they were used to, rather than considering what might be appropriate for the locals. (A bit like the Irish/UK guage mix-up that happened in Australia.)

    • Thanks for pointing this out, Alistair. I was aware that there are many anomalies in European rail traffic management although I didn’t have the details. I did think to include it in the story but decided it would be complicating matters. There is also the rule of the river where, I believe, navigating to the right is more or less universal, even in Britain.

      • “..navigating to the right is more or less universal, even in Britain”.

        Yup; the rule for vessels – wherever they are – which are passing each other is ‘port to port’, that is, the left (port) side of your own vessel passes the left (port) side of the other vessel ..if you’re approaching each other. (If one vessel is overtaking another, there’s no specified side to take, except that the overtaking vessel – assuming it’s a powered vessel, not a sailing vessel – MUST keep ‘out of the way’ of the other vessel).

        Generally in rivers one keeps to the right hand side (“starb’d”), BUT a vessel “constrained by its draught” (..needing plenty of water below itself, because the vessel is itself deep, or if it’s carrying heavy cargo..) can take whichever route is appropriate for it, and others must keep out of its way. And the sharper ‘inside’ of a bend – whether to the left or to the right – is generally shallower than the less-sharply-curved ‘outside’, so many vessels may need to keep over to the outside of the bend, whichever direction they’re travelling in ..towards each other, OR on similar courses to each other!

        ..And there’s plenty more where that came from, either in your seamanship manual, or in the maritime ‘Rules of the Road’ (..yes, they’re called rules of the road!..), or in Reed’s Nautical Almanac ..which used to be available from the late Arthur Beale’s shop on Shaftesbury Avenue (..Macfilos: macfilos.com/2021/05/17/the-shop-that-is-closing-after-500-years/)

        • Aviation rules are the same – keep “port to port” with approaching aircraft. As always there are exceptions, with powered aircraft giving way to gliders and both giving away to balloons – for obvious reasons!
          With aircraft there is the added benefit of vertical separation, which makes things safer.

          • Hmmm, I’m still stuck in starboard and larboard days. Port has passed me by (probably on the wrong side). And isn’t the port always passed to the left? The old naval rule of “port to port”… On a positive note, welcome to your enthusiastic discussion group, Peter.

        • Egad, we’re a knowledgeable lot here on Macfilos. We have a solution to everything. When I stand on my balcony and view the Thames, downriver towards Hammersmith Bridge, I never notice the “rule of the river”. That’s probably because there isn’t much passing going on. Most of the traffic is rowed along, Boat Race fashion with a little person in a speedboat shouting through a big megaphone. That wakes me early every Saturday morning, but it is a preferable disturbance to that made by planes and cars. Bet it’s the same upriver…

          • It is similar upriver – there used to be passenger ‘tripper boats’ coming up from Charing Cross Pier or Westminster to Hampton Court (back in the sixties and seventies) but very few of those are still running ..just the ‘Connaught’ and an occasional couple of others.

            But we also have the trippers running between Richmond and Kingston or Hampton Court, and sometimes the larger ones – on a hot summer’s afternoon when there are sailing boats and rowing boats, or a regatta on the river – signal their intentions with their air horns (or ‘whistles’) ..one long blast: I am turning to starb’d (right); two longs: I’m turning to port (..to the vessel’s left); three: I’m intending to go astern (backwards ..not so easy for aeroplanes, I guess); four: (can’t remember); five short blasts: “what the **** are you doing? Look out!! ..I’m approaching and you’re not paying any attention!!”

            But mostly, it’s the honking of the Canada geese which make the most noise; constantly changing between two honks, three honks, five – or more – honks, and then leaving the river and flying over the house, but as they’re below 400 feet (usually) they don’t need a pilot’s licence nor contact with Heathrow air traffic control, it seems..

  6. Practical tip for being on the wrong side at tolls: you can easily get a badge for using the French Télépéage system regularly on Autoroutes from http://www.emovis-tag.co.uk and for short-term use in many countries from http://www.tolltickets.com.

    I used Télépéage for many years even before it became comonplace for France residents, and sailing past the long queues for manual payment at the tolls was always a delight. It is also amusing to see French drivers behind me panic when they see a supposed idiot British driver enter the Télépéage lane, thinking I will get stuck at the barrier!

    You can also use the badges to pay for car parks at many places.

  7. I was always puzzled by right hand drive. I drove on the left side in UK during business trips during the 1990s. I would reserve an automatic transmission and it was always not available when I got there. I found it very unnatural trying to use the controls with my left hand. Who would have thought? On one trip after getting off an all night flight from Canada, I entered the airport roundabout in the wrong direction causing a wee bit of chaos until I managed to get onto the centre island of the roundabout. An Irish born employee with me calmly asked if he could drive.

  8. Crossing from Sweden into Norway and vice versa in those days! Well we will draw a veil over that….

  9. Purpose-built competition sports cars (as opposed to single seaters) still have their steering wheel on the right, as they always have done – even if built in the Porsche or Ferrari factories, where they’re far outnumbered by left-hand-drive production cars. No left-hand-drive pre-war Bugattis either, of course.

    Switching to the ‘wrong’ side of the road when visiting the Continong tends not to be a problem, as you’re generally going with the flow. But visiting (say) a filling station on the other side of the road can cause some head-scratching when you emerge (and it’s possibly even more complicated when doing the same soon after returning to Blighty).

  10. I recall hearing something about the Romans travelling on the left so that their sword hand would be in the middle of the road to engage with parties coming in the other direction such as attacking pirates or vagabonds. Apart from that, what have the Romans ever done for us?. I also know that while the Italians drove on the right since the 1890s, their sports racing cars up to the 1960s had the driver sitting on the right hand side of the car. Check out the Ferrari winners in Le Mans in 1960 and 1963 and others. I have not driven in Sweden, but what I saw there looked to be very orderly. I have driven in Italy and have been overtaken by nuns driving about 100 kph in Bambinos. I have also reversed up a one way street in Rome against oncoming traffic, which gave me enough excitement for the rest of my life.

    I did not drive when I was in India, but I have been on a junction box in Delhi where traffic was coming from four directions at once all meeting in the centre of the junction and I wondered if our driver would get through, but he always did. The worst driving I have seen is in the Middle East where you will see young Arab guys in a Land Cruiser on two wheels while they steer their vehicles with their bare feet. This might seem amusing, but it is not when you are driving in the opposite direction on the other side of the road. Camels also will not move for traffic, you always have to drive around them.

    Surviving such driving makes the Swedish handover seem ‘easy peasy’.

    William

    • Oh William! “..I have also reversed up a one way street in Rome against oncoming traffic, which gave me enough excitement for the rest of my life”.

      On my first trip to Rome I was walking around and saw this sign ‘Senso Unico’ with an arrow on it, and thought it must be pointing to some particularly memorable – or visitable – church, so kept following these signs ..but never seemed to arrive at whatever it was they were pointing to..

  11. Slightly off topic but still to do with measurements
    I have a Reid and Sigrist camera a very good copy of a Leica III except it is built with Imperial measurements
    Can I find anyone who will even touch it in all metric Australia No Nd it needs a shutter curtain repair

    • You could consider emailing Ivor Cooper at Red Dot Cameras in London. I know he once bought a lot of Reid parts. Mention my name.

  12. For years I lived in the US Virgin Islands, where driving on the left is the rule. Even after living there for years, I found that the time I would have a problem was backing onto an unlighted road late at night (maybe after having a drink at a friend’s house). Invariably my years of driving on the right would instinctively take over and I would find myself driving on the right for a few minutes until I caught myself.
    I would often go to Puerto Rico, where they drive on the right. The constant switching kept you on your toes.
    One would think that British (or Japanese cars built for their domestic market) would have been popular in the VI, but they were not.
    The terms left-hand drive and right-hand drive tend to be confusing since one is unsure if it refers to the side of the road you drive on or the side of the car the steering wheel is on.

  13. Many times getting off a plane jetlagged after a transcontinental flight I’d go straight to the hire car desk. Then it would be a matter of always staying alert to driving on the right side of the road compared to my normal left side of road.
    How to remember? Change my wristwatch from my left arm to my right. Feels really weird, but a continual reminder when on the road or at intersections. Survival proof, it works.

  14. There is the old joke that if Belgium ever decided to change over to the left they would first change over the lorry traffic until every one got used to it, then change over the cars as well.
    Not really fair on Belgium, but when we lived there the driving standards were pretty poor.

    Peter C

    • I tagged along with my Dad on various Continental jaunts in the ’60s and in those days, we reckoned we could usually tell a driver’s nationality by the driving style. The Belgians were probably the easiest as in those pre-homogeneous (and pre-Euro) times, they were invariably piloting slightly down-at-heel American cars with plenty of battle scars at unfeasibly high speeds. The Dutch were quite timid (this before Verstappen pere et fils), the Germans ruthless but effective, the French invariably on their way to or from some scene of mayhem, the Swiss would hoot and make gestures if they thought you were exceeding the speed limit, and the Italians – well, that would be the car that hooted as soon as the traffic lights changed to green, whether or not anything had actually started moving. Shameful stereotyping, of course.

  15. There was a complication you didn´t mention with the car population in Sweden before the switchover: almost all cars (even Swedish-built and imported British ones) had the steering wheel on the left! Convenient for stopping by the roadside and getting out directly onto the pavement, but inconvenient and dangerous when overtaking… I don´t know why, but that was the way it was. Right drive cars were extremely scarce here.

    Personally, I didn´t have any problems adjusting to right hand traffic – until one year or so later, when I took my wife and car to Scotland, and suddenly had to “unlearn” again; THAT was confusing! But both we and the Scots survived.

    • Interesting. I assumed most cars in Sweden had been right-hand drive I Til the decision to change over was made. I also imagined that the preparatory period must have been long, perhaps as long as ten years. Glad you survived Scotland.

  16. All this port and starboard business got me confused. Thankfully passing the port still goes to the left…

    I learned to drive in England but have done most of my driving on the other side of the road. To avoid confusion when I return to the UK I try to rent a car with a manual gearbox and the extra thought seems to help me remember which side of the road to be on. Deserted T-junctions can still catch me out occasionally however, but that is offset by the joy of hammering through roundabouts which barely exist in the US and seem to cause endless confusion and dithering there.

    Ah the joy of driving, wherever you may be and whichever side of the road works!

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