50 Years Ago Today: Sweden Taught Us That Big Change Was Possible

One of my least favorite things to hear somebody say is, “That’s just the way we’ve always done it”, when asked to explain why something is done a certain way.  It is lazy. If that is the best answer someone can give, they should start looking for a better way to do it.  The problem for many is: change is too hard.  It is scary.  It is uncomfortable.

Comfort is often the enemy of progress.

50 years ago today, Sweden did a remarkable, complicated, and worthwhile thing.  The entire country switched from driving on the left hand side of the right side of the road.  It took a massive governmental campaign to hold the hand of a nation while treading on uncomfortable new ground.  It was worth it.

Swedish drivers had always occupied the left side of the road.  Pressure to change mounted as their bordering neighbors Denmark and Norway drove on the right.  It made border crossings very confusing, and sometimes dangerous.  Swedes began buying more and more American cars, with the driver on the left.  This was also very dangerous, especially around the many windy mountain curves in Sweden.  Sweden had one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the world.

In 1953, the Swedish people were allowed to vote on whether to keep driving on the left, or switch.  They resoundingly rejected the idea.  83 percent voted to keep doing what they were doing.  After all, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”  However, in 1963 the Swedish Parliament voted to force the country to switch regardless of how the people felt.

For over a decade, the Swedish government had to convince their people of the rightness, (pun intended), of their decision.  They employed a team of psychologists to help figure the best way to change the minds and hearts of their drivers.  They also had to prepare them for the day that this would actually happen.  It was called, “Operation-H”, with the H standing for Högertrafikomläggningen,or right handed traffic diversion.  The government started putting the “H” logo everywhere, even on women’s underwear.  They held a national contest for an official song of the changeover.  The winner was, “Keep on the Right Svenson” by the Telestars.

Dagen H, the day Sweden switched sides of the road, 1967 (3)

There was also the logistical problems of switching to be dealt with.  1000 new busses were purchased, while 8000 others were retrofitted, as they had to have the passenger entrance doors on the other side.   All 360,000 street signs and traffic lights had to be replaced.  The Government erected 130,000 signs just to remind people the day was coming.  Streets had to be repainted, intersections re-designed, bus stops moved, etc.  New signs and lights were put up, covered with plastic.  The streets were painted with new lines which were kept covered until the big day.

dagen-h-signs

On H-day, September 3, 1967,  all non essential traffic was ordered stopped for five hours while workers made a mad dash to take down the old signs and take the plastic off the new ones.  People turned it into a party, gathering on the sides of streets to watch the historic event.  Loudspeakers were used, and the countdown was broadcast until at 5:00 P.M. the announcer said, “We now have right handed driving in Sweden.”  Cars cautiously switched sides, and Sweden had a “New Normal.”

h1

We need progress, we often need change,  we need to constantly be pushing to evolve and get better.  History is filled with thousands of examples of how people were forced to reluctantly embrace something new, only to to later realize how they had been doing it wrong before.   Automobile safety is a great example, as it has been constantly improving and saving lives.  Think about laws like mandatory seat belt wearing, cracking down on drunk driving, and distracted driving.  They all were met with resistance, and have all been looked back upon as the right thing to do.

Former baseball manager Joe Torre says often, “The most important word in the English language is: why.  If you can’t explain why, you shouldn’t be doing it.  Besides that, you will lose your ability to convince others to follow you.”  Leaders lead, and they have to teach their followers why the directions they are being led is the best ones.  People will follow if they know why.

Change is hard, but so is most of the good stuff.  If you ask someone a question about why something is, and their answer is, “That is just the way we’ve always done it.”  Don’t accept that answer, especially if the person speaking is yourself.

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