Fifty years ago, I was a part of World History.
Of course, it was almost by happenstance that I’d become involved, but a little forethought may have been appropriate.
You see, I’d been anxiously awaiting my first visit to Sweden where I’d meet my Old-World relatives for the first time. I was serving with the U.S. Army just outside Nuremberg, Germany when I’d begun my search for that part of my family who remained in Sweden when my grandfather had left for America in 1901.
With those contacts made and enough leave time accrued for a week-long visit, plans were made. I’d be traveling with an Army buddy, John, who’d purchased a 1950s model Volkswagen, and a new German friend, Manfred. The three of us had made our plans. We’d leave the Nuremberg area early on Saturday morning, Sept. 2, 1967, make a couple of stops along the way and arrive, hopefully, in the small Swedish village of Insjon during the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 3.
We hadn’t planned on getting right in the middle of a huge traffic problem. However, we got a forewarning on Saturday. As we drove from the ferry that took us from Denmark into Sweden, we were greeted by a Swedish customs official. When waved through, he gave us a cautionary word. “Remember,” he said, “today with have left-hand traffic; tomorrow we switch to right-hand traffic.”
“Yeah, yeah,” my friend John said as he drove past the customs official and directly into the path of an on-coming car, whose driver honked his horn and swerved away while his passenger frantically waved his hands and gave us the universal sign of displeasure. Before then, I thought that was an American “greeting.”
We drove on the left side of the highway to Gothenburg, but awoke on Sunday morning, Sept. 3, 1967 to a world that was familiar to us, but foreign to the eight million folks who called Sweden “home.”
The change was both sudden and dramatic for a nation of drivers who’d driven on the left side of roadways their entire lives. And, the change wasn’t welcomed by most. Even though Swedes had voted to maintain left-side driving (83 percent of the voters had said so just a few years earlier), the Swedish law-makers had nonetheless approved the switch to right-hand traffic.
“D-Day,” or in this case “Hagen D,” was set for Sunday, Sept. 3, 1967. Naturally, it didn’t come without preparation. New signs had been placed around the country, traffic lights had been installed and many painted roadway signs had been covered as well as possible. All those new signs would be uncovered overnight and the old ones covered.
The government had instituted a total travel ban from midnight on Saturday, Sept. 2, until 5 a.m. on Sunday. In larger cities, such as Stockholm and Gothenburg, that travel ban lasted even longer. Even on Sunday, the first day of right-hand traffic, a nationwide 50 km per hour (about 35 miles per hour) speed limit was placed on all rural highways. All non-essential traffic was also banned that Sunday.
Our travel, however, was “essential,” or so we thought. In that environment, the three of us started out Sunday morning for the final 450 miles of our journey. At each crest of a hill, I envisioned a confused Swede driving at us on the wrong side of the road.
Fortunately, it never happened. And, as for the strict speed limit, well, we “fudged” quite a lot on that, too. In fact, three times during our journey northward we were stopped by Swedish “polis” for driving too fast. Each time, however, we got only a warning to “please slow down” even though our speed was more than double what was allowed.
But, we made it, arriving in late afternoon, where we were greeted by my grandfather’s niece and her family, treated to a flag-raising in our honor and the first home-cooked meal a couple of young soldiers had enjoyed in months. We spent a week there and I met so many relatives I couldn’t remember most names five minutes after my first meeting.
The trip back was largely uneventful.
“Dagen H” (the “H” stands for Hoger, or “right”) or “Right Day” went off with few problems. Only 157 accidents were reported across the entire nation as Swedes returned to work on Monday. Only 32 involved personal injuries. Before the switch there were an average of 130 to 198 accidents on Mondays.
Of course, I brought home a souvenir from that day, a paste-board road sign with a big “H” – one of the thousands of signs placed along Swedish highways to remind motorists of the change. I took it from a non-critical point, secreted it away in John’s Volkswagen, and shipped it back home.
I suppose that’s a confession. But, I’m sure the statute of limitations has long run out and I’m also quite sure that the Swedish government wouldn’t seek extradition for a theft that occurred a half-century ago.