On September 3, 1967 in Sweden, something incredible happened.
No one died in traffic.
The next day, something even more incredible happened: a second day with no traffic deaths, anywhere in the entire country.
But what is truly incredible is why, and what happened next.
From Left to Right
September 3, 1967 was the day Sweden switched from driving on the left side of the road to driving on the right. It was perhaps the greatest rapid logistical reconfiguration in the history of urban infrastructure, and its results led to a global movement for safer streets.
We all know that some countries drive on the left and some countries drive on the right. But the history of these cultural differences traces back to the days before cars — before even horse-drawn carriages — to the days when long-distance travel was done by horseback.
In most regions, riders stuck to the left side of the road — freeing their dominant right hand to greet oncoming riders or, sometimes, to fight oncoming enemies. With the advent of the horse-drawn carriage, travelers in most regions switched to the right side of the road as drivers positioned themselves on the back-left horse so their dominant right hand could more easily control the rest of the team. This custom varied, though, from country to country and even between localities within countries.
As motorized vehicles replaced carriages, local laws typically enshrined the rules of the road that had been normalized by carriage traffic. In most areas, this meant that automobiles were made to travel on the right side of the roadway. Sweden, though, was an odd duck among its Nordic peers, as the only country in the region to mandate left-driving, and one of only a handful of countries outside of the British Empire.
Left-driving caused a number of challenges in Sweden, primarily because it is a small country and thus relies on transnational trade and exchange. Tourists and visitors — predominately from right-driving, bordering countries — driving in to Sweden were confused and rendered downright dangerous by making the switch. And because its own economy was so small, even Swedish automakers built cars designed to be driven on the right in order to more easily sell them abroad; by the 1960s, approximately 90% of the nation's cars were of the conventional, right-driving variety.
Operating right-drive cars on the left side of the road was particularly dangerous when passing or turning across traffic, resulting in a disproportionate number of serious head-on and side-impact collisions. In 1955, the Swedish government held a referendum to move its drivers from the left side of the road to the right; it was shot down by voters in a landslide, with 83% opposed.
The carnage on Swedish roads continued, eventually leading the Swedish parliament to make the change against the wishes of voters. On May 10, 1967, the government voted overwhelmingly to introduce right-driving.
The date for the switch — on which Sweden's one-and-a-half million cars would begin driving on the right — was set for September 3, 1967.
The Story of Dagen H
The day of the switch — known as Högertrafikomläggningen, or Dagen H — arrived after a months-long public education campaign, even featuring a song called "Keep to the Right, Svensson" promoting the change. In Sweden, "going left" is a euphemism for having an affair. The Dagen H logo was slapped on everything from milk cartons to women's underwear.
Roads were closed to all non-essential traffic from 1:00 am to 6:00 am, while construction crews switched out signs and made final infrastructural adjustments. After a few brief hours of adjustment, Sweden's roadways and its drivers had made the switch.
And on that first day, something funny happened — accidents plummeted.
The following day — a Monday, the first weekday since the switch — the trend continued. By 8:00 am on Tuesday, only 157 accidents had been reported nationwide since the switch; only 32 of those accidents caused injuries, with just a handful serious. These accident totals came as a shock to the traditionalist opponents of Dagen H, who predicted massive calamity, and were considerably below those of an average September day. Not a single death occurred on Swedish roadways. The switch, it would seem, was an incredible success.
In the months and years that followed, however, something not-so-funny happened: traffic accidents crept back up to the same levels seen before the switch. Even with the safety benefits brought by driving vehicles on the side of the road for which they were designed, Swedish drivers adapted to the change and began to drive with less care. By 1969, accident and fatality rates reached those observed prior to Dagen H.
Dagen H — and its incredible results, both immediate and long-term — have since established the foundation for our understanding of behavioral adjustment, including the theory of risk homeostasis, and led to a global movement for safer streets.
In the decades that followed Dagen H, with traffic violence escalating and no change in sight, the Swedish government embarked on an ambitious initiative: the complete and total elimination of traffic deaths on Swedish roadways. In October 1997, Swedish parliament approved what is known as Vision Zero, seeking to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2020.
Vision Zero marked a radical change in Swedish thinking on road safety: the new idea was that no loss of life is acceptable. Period. The approach has proven highly-successful, recognizing that humans will make mistakes and while roads systems must keep us moving, they must also be designed to protect users at every turn.
At the heart of Vision Zero and its effectiveness is the notion that the design of roadways has the most significant impact upon the safety of users. Rather than the approach of past decades, in which cities and nations focused on improvements in safety technologies and increased enforcement — both approaches which carry significant ongoing costs to both the public and private sectors — Vision Zero introduces the idea that if safety is enforced by the very design of roadways, enforcement and technology can be used to enhance an already-safe system.
When Vision Zero first launched in Sweden, the country recorded seven traffic fatalities for every 100,000 residents; by 2014, that number had fallen to less than three, despite a significant increase in traffic. For reference, traffic fatalities occur at a rate of 11.6 per hundred-thousand in the United States.
Sweden now has the world's safest roads, with Vision Zero having made such a tremendous impact that it has since gone global.
A Global Movement, a Local Need
In recent years, a handful of countries and 35 cities in the United States have adopted Vision Zero policies. Where Vision Zero initiatives have been in place the longest and with the greatest commitment, traffic safety has improved the most.
In cities where Vision Zero has worked, the public sector has shown dedication to reorienting its departments away from the traditional, siloed approach toward a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach to streets that involve traffic engineers, police and fire departments, elected officials, public health professionals, and the community from the very outset of streets projects — extending this collaboration to community-wide planning for safe streets.
In Wichita, we must change our conception of streets simply as conduits to move cars as efficiently as possible to places that enhance the health, wealth, and safety of all Wichitans.
In successful cities, streets are for people.
It is time for our leaders to lead, and put Wichita on the cutting edge of progress in making our city a humane and hospitable place for its citizens.
Tomorrow, we will be releasing the third part of this series, demonstrating in a concrete, project-based way how this shift in thinking should be applied in an American town.