Sweden's Dagen H Got it Right

Turning Point

We all deal with change in our lives. Our bodies age, and we adjust, or try to. Our kids mature, and eventually move on with lives of their own. The work we do changes. Mostly, these changes are for the good, introducing better, faster, easier to use tools that make what we do more efficient.

I started my writing career using a manual typewriter. I still bang the keys on my computer like it was an old Remington. But the computer has made me a much better writer, and the savings on white out probably tops five figures over the years.

Change is often a matter of degrees. Some changes are relatively simple, like a software update that moves the buttons around without much impact on functionality. Other changes are bigger, like taking care of an elderly parent or changing jobs. But nothing quite tops the transition Sweden underwent 47 years ago.

The country pulled off something I think still causes awe for those who know the story, not so much for the change itself, but the relative smoothness and ease with which they accomplished it. It’s possible it could only have happened in Sweden. 

In my travels, I’ve been blessed to visit Sweden three times on business. On one of my visits, I was told the story of Sweden’s Dagen H, and it fascinated me.

Apparently, well before my first visit, Swedes drove on the left side of the road, like in England. On September 3, 1967, the entire country switched to driving on the right side of the road. At 4:50 a.m., all traffic stopped for 10 minutes, carefully changed lanes, and then resumed on the opposite side of the road. In more densely populated areas, it took a bit longer, but you get the idea.

That change is now known in Sweden as Dagen (day) H (Högertrafikmeans, which means “right-hand traffic”) or “right-hand traffic day.”

How did this happen? In the U.S., we can’t even agree on metric versus imperial. I can’t imagine us changing traffic lanes from right to left. Apparently, though, it wasn’t a popular decision. The Swedes basically had Dagen H thrust upon them. For 40 years, a referendum on the change was voted down, with 83-percent opposed in the last vote held in 1955.

Regardless of popular sentiment to the contrary, Sweden’s parliament decided in 1963 to move forward with plans to change the country from left- to right-hand drive. There were, however, a couple of compelling arguments to make the switch, which launched a 4-year “education” program.

One justification for the change was that all of Sweden’s bordering neighbors drove on the right side of the road. If the family was going to visit Norway, for example, it had to change from the Swedish side of the road to Norway’s. And this was true for Norwegians visiting Sweden.

Interestingly, most Swedes drove left-hand drive cars, which could be dangerous. I remember a drive in Spain with a British man who had brought over his right-hand drive Vauxhall, which we drove on right-hand drive Spanish roads. It was a terrifying ride on narrow mountain roads.

During the ramp up to H Day, roads, crossovers, viaducts and about 360,000 signs were changed. At the appointed time, they simply switched. One-way streets proved troublesome because bus stops had to be built on the other side of the street.

According to some research I did on this nationwide switch, there were about 150 minor accidents on the Monday following H Day, none of them fatal. This relatively low number is ascribed to a better view of the road provided by left-hand drive cars on the right-hand side of the road.

How we deal with problems and challenges is a significant indicator of success or failure. Manufacturing is constantly barraged with challenges that fly in the face of “how we’ve always done things.”

For 233 years, from horses to wagons to cars, the people of Sweden drove on the left side of the road. That’s a lot of inertia to overcome to make such a drastic change in such a short period of time. However, that has proved to be the right call after 40-plus years.

So the next time I’m faced with some degree of change in my world, or you are looking at what seems a drastic problem in the shop, perhaps we should think back to the transition on 9/3/67 in Sweden. Working together with a feasible plan is often the best way to navigate through difficulties.