Saturday, 3 December 2011

Höger Day

In October 1961, in part of a post-Suez spirit of Europhilia that led to the first serious discussions about a channel tunnel, the minister of transport Ernest Marples announced a public inquiry to explore the feasibility of shifting to driving on the right. Soon there was a precedent that showed it was possible for a country to make the switch.    

Nazism had ironed out some of the differences in continental practice, Austria and Czechoslovakia having switched to right-side driving when they were invaded in 1938. So after the war, there was only one mainland European country still driving on the left: Sweden. As the number of vehicles crossing its frontiers rose in the postwar era, Sweden began to worry that it was the only country left driving on the left, particularly since it had frontiers with two right-hand driving countries, Finland and Norway. Almost all Swedes bought cars with steering wheels on the left.

In 1955, the Swedish government held a plebiscite on the issue. 'Leftists' and 'rightists' waged a fierce propaganda war, at the end of which 82 per cent voted to keep left. But the two main parties ignored this thumping majority and in 1963 cut a deal to force the change through. In a project masterminded by Lars Skiöld, director of the Right-Hand Traffic Commission, Sweden would switch to the right at 5am on Sunday 3 September 1967, the so-called Dagen-H or Höger Day (Right Day). A joke doing the rounds before Höger Day was that the Swedes, being confirmed social gradualists, would make bicycles switch to driving on the left first, then cars, then buses, trams and lorries.

What happened instead resembled a Situationist artwork, a poetic transformation of daily life. The changeover was preceded by a ban on all but essential traffic, while new traffic signs were uncovered and old ones covered up. Despite the early hour and the ban on traffic, traffic jams developed as tourists and TV cameramen swarmed on to the road to witness the change. At 4.50am all the traffic on Sweden's 60,000 miles of road was moved over to the right side, and ten minutes later it started moving. Within two days of the changeover, the police registered 13,000 cases of relapsing to the left side, and 58 per cent of drivers admitting doing so in the first week. Despite a big increase in head-on collisions, though, the overall accident rate was actually lower than normal. During the first year, road deaths dropped by 17 per cent – before returning to their previous levels.

Why, if Sweden had managed the seemingly impossible, could Britain not do the same? A big problem was that Britain had a much bigger bus population than Sweden, and ministry of transport studies showed that the conversion of buses to have entrances on the right-hand side would have been the costliest aspect of the operation. The issue rumbled on and, after Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, some Europhobes were worried that the Economic Commission for Europe would press for uniformity. But by the end of that decade, the costs - in new road signs, road layouts, right-hand drive cars and buses - were too high to contemplate a change. Driving on the left side of the road has become so ingrained that the suicidally absent-minded motorist who drives the wrong way down a British motorway today – a fairly common occurrence in the 1960s – usually makes the evening news.

No comments:

Post a Comment