Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner


July 7th, 2010 · 1 Comment

We stayed up late last night finishing Grounded, an unusual (and excellent) travelogue by our pal and occasional Slate colleague Seth Stevenson. (Check out one of our NFL-centric back-and-forths here.) The book is an account of Seth’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe with his girlfriend, using only surface transportation—no planes, helicopters, or dirigibles. Hilarity and adventure ensue, as does a bunch of juicy local trivia. One of our favorite tidbits is mentioned toward the book’s end, as Seth barrels across the Outback and questions his ability to survive the experience while driving on the left. In doing so, he mentions a historical event that deserves much wider play: H-Day, the early-morning moment in September 1967 when all of Sweden suddenly shifted from driving on the left to driving on the right. The photo above was snapped at 4:50 a.m. on H-Day, as cars switched lanes. They then remained motionless for ten minutes, and started driving again at the stroke of five o’clock. Not a single injury was recorded.

There is something wonderfully Scandinavian about the orderliness of this transition, which the Swedish government prepared for in the most exhaustive manner imaginable. Even the incarcerated were looped into the H-Day plans:

To make sure its prisoners go right when they emerge into freedom, Sweden is including prisons in a massive publicity campaign preceding the nation’s changeover to right-hand driving.

“We have to reach everybody, including handicapped people, foreigners, children, prisoners, and so on,” says Lars Skjoeld, director of the Right-Hand Traffic Commission…

Eight million brochures will be distributed Monday to all Swedish households, hospitals, and prisons…Toys, soda and beer bottles and milk packages are being used to impress everyone that Sept. 3 is H-Day.

This all makes us wonder what H-Day can teach us about Scandinavian exceptionalism. One of the great puzzles for social and political scientists has been to figure out what, exactly, makes the Scandinavian countries consistently top the development tables. There’s certainly no single explanation, but the Scandinavian knack for massive organization probably plays a key role. And that knack seems to involve quite a bit of foresight—it takes a special kind of planning talent to realize that prisoners needed to be brought into the H-Day fold, too. It’s probably no coincidence, then, that these northern nations also have a traditional passion for chess, the ultimate pastime for those who prize vision.

(Image via the Volvo Owners Club)


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One Comment so far ↓

  • eraserhead

    I was in Okinawa when it changed from right (U.S.) to left (Japan). And it was also done in the wee hours of the morning, as I recall. And, of course, being Japan, it was also quite orderly, as the white-gloved policemen politely waved everyone to the other side of the street. Since I was there as a young airman, most details are gone along with the alcohol-soaked brain cells…. Sorry.