A lesson from Sweden

We do not suggest that the UK should switch from driving on the left to driving on the right, but we ask if there are lessons from Sweden’s switch in 1967 that might be applied to the oft-postponed changeover of UK’s road traffic signs to metric.

Q. How long does it take in Britain to change a road sign?
A. 48 years and counting.

(In 1969, the UK Metrication Board suggested that UK road traffic signs should be changed to metric in 1973. However in December 1970, the Minister for Transport Industries, replying to a question in Parliament, said “… the Government have however decided that speed limits will not be made metric in 1973 and have no other date in mind.”)

Q. How much could it cost?
A. Around £1135 per sign.

(In a report prepared in November 2005, the UK Department for Transport estimated that it would cost between £565 million and £644 million to convert a total of 532 350 signs throughout the UK to show metric not Imperial measurements.)

We have now read a report about the switch in Sweden in 1967 from driving on the left to driving on the right.


The article states, “Some 360,000 street signs had to be switched nationwide, which largely took place on a single day before the move to right-hand driving, with council workers joined by the military and working late …”

But clearly there was much more to the switch than changing road signs. The article points out, “In the run-up to H-Day, each local municipality had to deal with issues ranging from repainting road markings to relocating bus stops and traffic lights, and redesigning intersections, bicycle lanes and one-way streets.”

An author of a book on the switch is reported as saying, “It was the most important thing to happen in Sweden in 1967. The journalists – especially the guys from BBC – they were waiting for this bloodbath – a huge number of accidents. They were a little disappointed. At least that’s what I read!”

A Swedish professor in economic history believes that, as well as being important for Sweden’s global reputation, when viewed as part of the Nordic nation’s wider efforts to be seen as a major player in Europe, the switch might potentially also have had other longer-term benefits such as increased trade and transportation from other parts of the continent. However, this broader economic impact is, he argues, “difficult to estimate” since the changeover occurred “during a period where the economy was growing a lot – and GDP – each year, so it is difficult to distinguish the possible benefits on trade and transport”.

Ominously, the report suggests that it would be much more difficult to make the change if it were carried out now.

We conclude this article, as we began, with some questions.

Q1. Why was Sweden able to succeed with such a complex project which twelve years previously had been opposed by 85% of the population, whereas the UK has not been able to carry out a seemingly simpler task of changing its road signs to metric?

Q2. Why was Sweden concerned about the affect of its exceptionalism on its global reputation, whereas the UK couldn’t care less, or so it appears?

Q3. Has the UK missed the boat when is comes to a simple, straightforward changeover of its road traffic signs?




7 thoughts on “A lesson from Sweden”

  1. For metrication of road signage, you may also want to look at Commonwealth countries who metricated faster than the UK. The conversion apparently went smoothly decades ago in Canada and Australia. In Canada, even American drivers have (mostly) learned to manage the metric signage when they visit. As long as you have a dual unit speedometer (or a conversion card), it is not a very big deal.

    You do have to review all speed limits and make some decisions. Simple conversion factors leave an inconvenient number and consistent decisions need to be made on rounding up or down because the actual limit will change if you want a “round” number. The US allows multiples of 5 MPH or 10 km/h. Canada appears to use multiples of 10 km/h, from my experience driving in Canada (none very recent).


  2. For conversion of road signs in the UK the lesson to be learnt is from the Republic of Ireland, it seems to me. So, why not take advantage of that?


  3. My answer to question 1:
    The Swedish government was committed to the RHT-changeover and managed it very well indeed – something that is still lacking in the UK with respect to the metrication changeover.

    It boils down to the political will for any change – if the UK government one day has this for both changeovers, we can have metric road signs in the UK, and RHT too (yes, I also support RHT in the UK and worldwide).

    Regarding question 2:
    I believe Sweden was by this point was more open to international cooperation without the hangover of empire (Sweden, like the UK, once had an empire too), and realised the benefits of switching to RHT for road safety, travel and international trade (and the drawbacks and costs of not doing so).

    Regarding question 3:
    I personally don’t think the UK has missed the boat, regarding metric road signs, although it will be unfortunately a bit more costly to change, compared to in 1973 – due to the new variable speed limit signs and speed limit markings, among other things.


  4. 75% of countries drive on the right, and only 3 countries are not completely metric
    Those 3 countries are Liberia, Myanmar, and the United States. Britain is know as a semi metric country, so the UK could go either way. The world would be a lot better if we drove on the same side and used km/h. But that is dependent on future generations to decide also economics could decide things too.


  5. The UK change to world standard metric road speed limit signs can be immediate.
    When driving into busy built up areas I take speed limits to be in km/h, being slower and safer this should be ok with the many road safety campaign groups and zero cost.


  6. When Canada converted its speed limit signs (I was there at the time), it was done overnight, using university students in summer jobs assisting municipality workforces. Very successful using reflective stick-on signs, and was completed at a cost (in today’s money) of around £60 (C$100) a sign. Distance signs were converted more graadually. Anyone under the age of 45 in Canada will have no recollection of imperial road signs.

    Regarding Sweden, it made sense to switch to driving on the right, as most cars sold in Sweden were already LHD (easier to judge the road edge when two vehicles met on narrow snow covered roads). Obviously that advantage was lost when driving on the right, but it was not considered important enough. On the day following the switch, all traffic was banned except for emergency vehicles, and thereafter all vehicles had to have headlights on all the time, which is where daytime running lights originated from.


  7. Q1) Lack of political will, as it is not seen as a vote winner, therefore modern politicians won’t even look at it. I’ll bet it is further down the political “To Do List” than re-formatting the Falkland Island Sheep Dipping record forms (S102)

    Q2) like or loathe it, the UK is a leader in so many different fields and we’re a big player globally, that we often set the trends, and nuts to everyone else.

    Q3) the boat is never missed, it’s just not viewed as a priority so will be allowed to change as it wills – or not as the case may be. I’d say the last 40 odd years is proof enough that this view is correct, that I’d require quite some persuading that there’ll be a change from this path.


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