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Listen to my story on @99piorg: “H-Day”

June 8, 2016

This week on the podcast 99 Percent Invisible, you can hear a story that I co-produced with Sam Greenspan.

Here’s my original pitch to the show (below). You can see how the final story changed a lot from what I first envisioned:

At the start of 2016, in the far north of Sweden, Karl-Gustaf Bernhardsson (not his real name) went for a drive wearing only his underwear. He sneaked out when his wife wasn’t watching. He hadn’t been driving long before he had a small accident with another car (no one was hurt). When the police arrived, it was apparent that there was something wrong. Bernhardsson was suffering from dementia. He had been driving on the left side of the road. Bernhardsson had forgotten that on one night, nearly fifty years ago, everyone in Sweden switched from driving on the left side of the road to driving on the right.

Back in 1963, the Swedish parliament decided it was time to drive like the rest of continental Europe and much of the world. A majority Swedes had previously rejected the proposal in a national referendum. To prepare the country, Communication Minister (and future prime minister) Olof Palme launched a four year campaign. September 3, 1967 was called “Dagen H” for “Högertrafikomläggningen” which means “the right-hand traffic diversion.” The government posted Dagen H logos everywhere. Radio stations broadcast a new pop song, “Keep to the Right, Svensson” by the Telstars (who won the national songwriting contest. In the early morning hours of the switch, Swedes were ordered to stay home while road crews flipped all the road signs. The next day, there was some confusion in Stockholm but very few accidents (see photo). In one night, Swedes successfully abandoned the side of the road they’d driven on for more than 200 years.

It turns out that standardized “rules of the road” are a fairly recent development around the world. Law professor Peter Kincaid first became interested in driving sides when he drove from London to Accra across the Sahara and then later from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to North Cape in Norway. He wrote the book “The Rule of the Road: An International Guide to History and Practice”. Kincaid writes that knights and samurai needed to keep their right hand free in order to use their swords so often rode their horses on the left. Then in the late 1700s, France and the United States started using freight wagons pulled by teams of horses. They stayed to the right and you didn’t want to get in their way. The United Kingdom used a different wagon that worked better on the left. Nations soon codified their driving sides into law. Then European colonization imposed left or right side driving rules across the planet.

Peter Kincaid went to witness the most recent driving side change in Samoa. In 2009 Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi and his government argued switching from the right to the left would make importing cars easier. Before the change, Samoans organized the largest protest in the nation’s history and even started a new political party called People Against Switching Sides. I spoke to a car salesman in the capital Apia and he said “We didn’t understand why we had to change. It was a shock but as it wears on, it’s probably for the better. Now more people have more access to vehicles.” In fact, car registrations doubled as a result. Switching driving sides is a story how some things in the built environment can seem unchangeable and permanent. But in the end, we can actually change how we use them a lot more easily than we think…literally overnight.

[Production note: I’m a graduate of the 2011 Transom Story Workshop and have produced for KCRW, BBC and the World. I’m based in New York City. For this story, I’d like to combine archival tape from the Sweden and Samoa with original interview tape with Peter Kincaid as well as contacts in both countries. I have a gerontologist friend in Sweden (who told me about the dementia case) who has other family and patient stories. I’ve also spoken to and recorded some academics and experts for background on the Swedish switch. I connected with Peter Kincaid by email and he is willing to be interviewed but we have not yet spoken by phone. I am also in the process of connecting with Samoan government officials. P.S. I think Roman might like this website]

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