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?