NPF: SWITCHEROO

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 27th, 2015 by Ed

Growing up in Illinois and also living in Indiana for seven years as a young adult I became familiar with the annual controversy surrounding Indiana's historical refusal to adopt Daylight Savings Time. In 2005 the state legislature finally required all counties in the state to observe DST when it was agreed that it was ridiculous to have three different time rules in place in one state. There were (and still are) 12 counties on Central Time (border counties that are part of the Louisville and Chicago metro areas, both of which are Central), a bunch of counties on Eastern time without observing DST, and the remainder of counties on Eastern time with DST. It was really stupid. Equally stupid were many of the reactions to the change. People made dire predictions about the consequences and of course when the appointed day arrived in 2006 everyone just changed their clocks and instantly forgot about it in favor of, you know, going about their day.

Changing to Daylight Savings requires very little. Imagine the clustercuss it would create if we had to make a major change like, say, switching the side of the road on which we drive. Wouldn't that be crazy?

Sweden did it. In 1967. So we can just ask them.

Brief background. In 1960 Sweden realized that there were a number of economic disadvantages with being the only continental European country with shared land borders that drove on the left. Norway and Finland, neighbors with which it shares borders, drove on the right. Furthermore since cars in Sweden were left hand drive, passing on two lane roads from the left lane was basically an act of blind faith and courage, an example of whatever "Hold my beer" is in Swedish. Most traffic systems observe the "head in the middle" rule so the driver has the best view of the oncoming traffic. That's why the left-lane driving British have their steering wheels on the right hand side and…well, almost the whole rest of the world has the opposite. I've driven without the Head-Middle rule in the US Virgin Islands, where cars have American left-hand drive but British left-lane driving, and beyond the simple unfamiliarity I can attest that it is not a great way to navigate narrow, winding roads.

In 1962 Sweden had a referendum in which switching to right-lane driving went down in flames, with nearly 90% of the public opposed. People dislike change and wildly underestimate their ability to get accustomed to something like this so public reluctance was not surprising. In a moment of Good Government 101, though, the Swedish legislature passed a law anyway, doing the right thing and disregarding the fact that it angered voters in the short run. They were also wise enough to legislate a long period of time – two full years – to prepare Swedes and the nation's physical infrastructure for the change. The date chosen was September 3, 1967 for Högertrafikomläggningen ("right hand traffic diversion"). That doesn't exactly lend itself to marketing so it was publicized as Dagen H ("H Day") which sounds much better and also had a goddamn great logo:

dagen

Overnight on Sept. 2, a Saturday evening, all road traffic in the nation was halted around 4:30 AM and required to resume in the right lane at 5:00. Big cities had longer shutdowns while workers hurriedly changed signage and repainted intersections, yet even Stockholm finished its changes in less than eight hours. For the most part, a few images of confusion aside, Swedes appear to have handled it without much consternation. Accidents actually went down, albeit briefly before returning to normal levels as more and more drivers who had avoided the roads out of fear resumed their normal driving habits.

As part of publicizing the change the government gave out thousands of pairs of gloves with a red left and green right to remind drivers of the correct traffic pattern, but it turned out that people didn't need all that much reminding. Once the change was made drivers appear to have taken to it quickly, no doubt aided by the two years of reminders and preparation. I guess we're more adaptable than we expect. Well, at least the Swedish are. I'm not sure Americans could handle something like this. In fact looking at the way we handle any kind of social, economic, or political change I'm confident that we couldn't. Then again we might surprise ourselves.

But probably not.