Lessons for rapid transition

  • It is possible for whole populations to switch behaviour overnight when the reasons for doing so are in the public interest and well explained.
  • Even decisions meant to improve public health and safety that initially enjoy only minority support can quickly gain broader backing in the right context. Ingrained habits that manifest as strong opposition to change can adapt quickly and opposition evaporate quickly once the change has been introduced.
  • People are keen to back positive, forward-thinking ideas, and will back measures intended for the care and protection of the broader community.

How quickly, in peacetime democracies, are people prepared radically to change their behaviour? The Covid-19 pandemic provides some clues. One of the most common measures introduced to control its spread has been the ‘stay at home’ order. Normally known as ‘lockdown’ these instructions have been policed differently, with varying exemptions for ‘key workers’ and degrees of compulsion around the world. To an extraordinary degree, people have complied, and this is not the first time populations have accepted and adapted to suddenly introduced behaviour changes.

In the United States, by the end of March 2020, stay-at-home orders covered 94% of the population, 308 million people. And from Italy to France in Europe, and New Zealand in the southern hemisphere, lockdowns changed people’s lives overnight. Even in Donald Trump’s America, and in spite of a few high profile news reports of incidents of non-compliance, polling shows large-scale public support for restrictive measures in the cause of public safety. One study showed majority public support for all of eight proposed policies including bans on movement outside of homes and even, where necessary taking control of businesses. Another study showed bipartisan support, 95% from Democrats, and 87% from Republicans, for the cancellation of major public events.

The range of national circumstances makes precise comparisons of responses difficult, but their impacts are reflected in some general changes of behaviour. Great differences have been reported also within countries, for example, where poorer households have been compelled by economic necessity, and by being disproportionately represented under ‘key worker’ categories, to keep leaving home. As reported by New York Times, the wealthiest people in the top 10% of income were able to limit their movement more than those in the bottom 10% who were living in the same areas.

‘We Are Observing Social Distance’ by Byronv2  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Nevertheless changes in response to lockdown were rapid and on a huge scale. Anonymised data from Google’s mobility tracker showed a drop in visits by Americans to retail and recreational venues (places like restaurants, cafes, shopping centres, theme parks, museums, libraries, and movie theatres), against a baseline, up to the 9th May 2020. Figures for many European countries were much higher with France showing a 76% fall, the UK 78%, Spain 84%, Italy 63%, and less badly hit Germany still on 40%. In New Zealand, before the more recent easing of restrictions the figure was down 71%.

At other times in recent history different experiments in behaviour change – difficult for different reasons – have resulted in people successfully making overnight adaptations.

On a single day, 3 September 1967, the entire Swedish road system changed from driving on the left to driving on the right to align with driving patterns in neighbouring countries. Signposts, road markings and other street infrastructure had to be altered overnight. The day was officially known as Högertrafikomläggningen (right-hand traffic diversion) or simply Dagen H (H-Day). Thanks to careful planning, education and meticulous organisation, the work was completed on time and the traffic started up the next day on the other side of the road. There were no more accidents than usual – in fact, numbers were down perhaps because everyone was driving cautiously – and Sweden was now more conveniently aligned with its neighbours and able to buy cheaper left-hand drive cars. A massive change had happened literally overnight that affected everyone, involving changes in behaviour, to a huge number of physical structures on the ground and in legislation. And all this happened despite the fact that a majority of the country was initially against the move.

Preparing the country for the change was a costly and complicated endeavour.

Dagen H logo by Umberto (public domain)

Traffic lights had to be reversed, road signs changed, intersections redesigned, lines on the road repainted, buses modified, and bus stops moved. A massive PR campaign was conducted to  prepare the public for the change and educate them about how it would be implemented. Dagen H even got its own logo, which appeared on everything from milk cartons to underwear, and a song contest (the winning tune was “Håll dig till höger, Svensson” — “Keep to the right, Svensson” — by The Telestars).

The point of change itself was at 4:50 a.m. on September 3, 1967, with crowds of people gathering to watch, as all vehicles on the road were instructed to come to a halt, move carefully from the left side of the road to the right, and wait. At the stroke of 5:00am, following a countdown on national radio, the announcement came — “Sweden now has right-hand driving” — and the traffic restarted. Time Magazine called the event “a brief but monumental traffic jam.”

Although an extreme example, it is not a one-off. There have been other similarly rapid transitions, brought about at a single point in time and often for health reasons, where science and public opinion unite to make what might seem impossible possible. On March 29, 2004, Ireland went further than any other country and banned smoking in the workplace. The change came in overnight with claims that everyone would disobey, but broadly speaking the rules held and life changed forever in Dublin’s pubs, offices and factories. Publicans had been up in arms over the impending ban for the previous two years, predicting that driving out smokers would decimate their trade. Employers were also nervous, fearful of factory-floor rebellions and onerous inspection regimes. The tourism industry was worried that visitors would feel unwelcome and stay away, while smokers claimed civil liberties abuses, and others simply decried the nanny state.

The reverse was actually the case; the ban spawned copycat laws across the globe once policymakers saw the success of Ireland. Norway and New Zealand followed that same year, as did Uganda. Today smoking bans are commonplace in countries from Brazil to Bhutan, although there is still variation – and in the US the laws are at state level, meaning that they vary hugely from one city to another.

As described above, recent Coronavirus induced changes to behaviour have also happened quickly, nationally and with a surprising level of compliance across the globe. Different countries have adopted varying methods to educate and encourage their populations, but lockdown is an international word and widely understood. This shows that where there is a genuine understanding of the significance and reasons for the change and its benefit to people – the majority of people can and will shift behaviour fast. In the case of Covid-19, there is an immediate threat to life and a strong desire to protect our families, but in the case of the Irish smoking ban and the Swedish lane change, a majority were not initially in support. It took far-sighted, committed governments that were ready to enforce laws to make change happen.

Wider relevance

Leadership is vital for rapid national change – as is a believable and actionable plan. The Swedish Minister of Communication (and later Prime Minister), Olof Palme, put himself squarely behind the lane change. On the morning of Dagen H, he spoke on national radio, saying:

“This is a very large change in our daily existence, our everyday life. The doubts have naturally been great. But our innate hesitancy towards a fundamental transformation of our daily traffic environment has given way before a rational internationalism, before a reform that we are confident will benefit traffic safety. I dare say that never before has a country invested so much personal labour, and money, to achieve uniform international traffic rules”.

As promised, as Swedes began their working week on the day after H-Day, 157 minor traffic accidents were reported around the country, slightly less than average for a typical Monday and nobody died.

In Ireland, the smoking ban was driven by the Health and Children Minister Micheal Martin. In the southern city of Cork, some called for the minister to be sacked for “being a zealot”. But on March 29, the ban went ahead, and overnight, ashtrays vanished from over 10,000 pubs, as well as clubs and restaurants. Those caught smoking faced a hefty €3,000 fine. Despite early scepticism, it soon became obvious that the ban had been a huge success. Cigarette sales fell by 60pc in bars and it was reported that 7,000 people gave up smoking in the first 12 months after the ban came into effect. But enraged vintners continued to decry it as unworkable. Within months, pub owners reported a 25 percent drop in sales with rural pubs being worst hit, and called for the ban to be eased.

One change can open up opportunities around it for other innovations and developments. Several cities including Stockholm, Malmö and Helsingborg also used the change to road use to implement other alterations to the transport system, such as closing tram lines to allow for more bus routes. Hundreds of new buses were purchased by municipalities around the country in preparation, and around 8,000 older buses were reconfigured with doors on both sides. The total cost of amending public transportation came in at 301,457,972 Swedish kronor($69million). The entire project cost was equivalent to $283.6million today – a relatively small sum for a major national infrastructure and behaviour change project.

Similar spin-offs have happened in the coronavirus lockdown, where calling for people to stay at home to prevent the spread of disease has resulted in our urban environments being noticeably cleaner and quieter. This has in turn generated a number of initiatives to increase walking and cycling across the world. The European cities of Milan and Brussels have already taken steps to prioritise walkers and cyclists in their urban centres and the UK announced a £250million investment in cycle lanes to encourage people to commute by bike. France started a €20 million (£17million; $21.7million) scheme to cover bike repairs of up to €50 at registered mechanics and improve cycling infrastructure.

In Scotland, huge year-on-year increases have been recorded by dozens of cycle counters placed on roads by the pressure group Cycling Scotland. Edinburgh saw unprecedented weekday increases of up to 252% and huge weekend increases of up to 454% in the first three weeks of April. In Glasgow, cycle traffic rose by 74%. Across the UK, bicycle manufacturers and shops have reported a boom in demand, and many expect a further increase in sales as people consider resuming journeys to work when restrictions ease. Brompton, the UK’s largest bike manufacturer, producing almost 50,000 folding cycles a year, has seen a five fold increase in online sales since the start of April, and bike retailer Halfords has reported a “strong performance” and a 23% increase in share price. Cycling UK’s campaign for space for social distancing worked with Dr Robin Lovelace, Dr Joey Talbot and Dr Malcolm Morgan  from the University of Leeds Institute for Transport Studies to identify where ten English authorities, including Manchester and Birmingham, could place pop up cycle lanes that will allow the most people to cycle safely to work while also maintaining social distancing.​ These temporary cycle lanes could be quickly created using traffic cones and signs, including dual carriageway roads and roads with high cycling potential. Activists from the group Extinction Rebellion have also taken it upon themselves to use stencils to add additional temporary cycle lanes in cities and towns across the UK to indicate the sorts of changes they’d like to see on a permanent basis

Context and background

The decision to move Swedish traffic to the other side of the road was not taken lightly. H-Day (the “H” is for “Högertrafik,” Swedish for “right-hand traffic”) was actually the reversal of a 200-year-old driving regime, a left-side driving paradigm that held sway since 1734. It wasn’t officially recognised as law until 1916, around the time cars started to become more commonplace. In fact, the idea had repeatedly been voted down during the preceding decades. In 1955, a popular referendum showed that 83% of the Swedish population was opposed to the change. However, in May 1963 the Swedish Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of implementing the switch to right-side driving. With all of Sweden’s neighbouring countries driving on the right, it made sense for Sweden to do the same. Also, despite the left-hand driving rule, cars in Sweden typically had the steering wheel on the left because retailers found it too pricey to have the wheel moved. This led to many accidents, especially on narrow roads when the driver could not see to overtake.

As well as hoping to boost the country’s international reputation, the Swedish government had grown increasingly concerned about safety, with the number of registered vehicles on the roads shooting up from 862,992 a decade earlier to a figure of 1,976,248 recorded by Statistics Sweden at the time of H-Day. Sweden’s population was around 7.8 million. Despite driving on the left, many Swedes already owned cars with the steering wheel on the left-hand side of the vehicle, since many found it easy to buy them in neighbouring countries and major Swedish car manufacturers such as Volvo had chosen to follow the trend. However, there were concerns that this was a factor in rising numbers of fatal road traffic accidents, up from 595 in 1950 to 1,313 in 1966, alongside an increased frequency of collisions around Sweden’s borders with Denmark, Norway and Finland.

In the case of the Irish smoking ban, although driven by the Health minister, the concept was not born in isolation. The World Health Organization (WHO’s) 2004 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) also has played a key role in establishing the future social norms for tobacco as a dangerous substance to public health. That treaty, now ratified by 145 countries, stipulates numerous provisions for its’ members, among them to eliminate tobacco advertising, to enhance warning labels on tobacco products, to establish clean indoor air laws, and to clamp down on tobacco smuggling, which involves some 6–8.5% of the 5.5 trillion cigarettes produced every year worldwide, according to the 2000 World Bank/WHO report on Tobacco Control in Developing Countries. Many of the European measures were put in place after the FCTC was enacted by countries now obligated to put them in place.

Enabling factors

In Sweden, the investment in the planning and logistics needed to prepare the roads clearly helped to avoid confusion among drivers. But a large part of the government’s budget for Dagen H was also spent on communication initiatives designed to educate the Swedish public and get them behind the change. On paper, it didn’t look easy: in a public referendum in 1955, 83% of voters had actually been against the switch. The information campaign – costing around 43 million kronor (out of the total 628,349,774 total spent) – included television, radio and newspaper advertisements, and talks in schools. Dagen H had its own logo, emblazoned on billboards, buses and milk cartons.

It is also possible that a general “culture of conformism” and trust in authorities prevalent in Sweden at the time helped enable the shift in public opinion. Commentators have since noted that the media at that time was less critical than today and that they tended to report what the experts told them; if the experts said that this would not be very costly and it would benefit everybody, then the media were more accepting of that and the public were likely to follow. There was also only one television channel and one radio channel, which made communication simpler – everybody watched and listened to the same channels.

Similarly, the Irish smoking ban was supported by historic efforts elsewhere. Beginning in the early 1980s, several US cities and towns began enacting ordinances (local laws) that restricted, but did not eliminate, smoking in public places, workplaces, and restaurants. As understanding of the health effects of secondhand smoke grew, especially as a matter of worker protection, these more commonly completely prohibited smoking, and expanded the locations covered by the law. Ireland’s policy was significant because it showed a workplace ban could succeed across an entire country. “We had officials from [throughout Europe] come here so they could see what we had done with their own eyes,” says Luke Clancy, director general of the independent Research Institute for a Tobacco Free Society in Dublin, and one of the people who spearheaded the Irish campaign. “How much influence we had is perhaps best known to those who asked for our advice,” he says. “But they did ask, and now many have done the same.”

The ban came in smoothly despite the rows that preceded it and it was enforceable through the existing licencing system. For most publicans it was too big a risk to let people smoke, because their alcohol licence was at stake. It was a shock to the system at the start, but once established and accepted, the majority of the pub trade fell in line quickly. Of course, pubs are open to the public and any transgressions are highly visible and easy to report. Even the public health community, who were charged with the enforcement, was surprised at the ease with which the public took to it. But something no one could have predicted occurred in bars and nightclubs. As the air cleared of noxious tobacco fumes and punters were beginning to enjoy the absence of smoke from their clothing and hair after a night out, new smells were revealed. Air fresheners started to be used more to cover stale smells long masked by cigarette smoke.

Coronavirus lockdown was similarly made easier by the sense of threat to life and personal emergency, and the fairly consistently supportive treatment given to the measure by each nation’s media. By contrast, tackling climate change is currently seen as an impossibly complex goal without clear and concrete actions set against it, and one that remains in the realms of government rather than at the level of individual responsibility. If the human response to climate change globally could be faced honestly with the full set of economic and social tools available to governments facing pandemics, we might already be in a different place.

Scope and evidence

  • On a single day, 3 September 1967, the entire Swedish road system changed from driving on the left to driving on the right.
  • A left-side driving paradigm had held sway since 1734. It wasn’t officially recognised as law until 1916, around the time cars started to become more commonplace.
  •  In 1955, a popular referendum showed that 83% of the Swedish population was opposed to the change. However, in May 1963 the Swedish Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of implementing the switch to right-side driving.
  • There were concerns that this was a factor in rising numbers of fatal road traffic accidents, up from 595 in 1950 to 1,313 in 1966, alongside an increased frequency of collisions around Sweden’s borders with Denmark, Norway and Finland.
  • The point of change itself was at 4:50 a.m. on September 3, 1967 as all vehicles on the road were instructed to come to a halt, move carefully from the left side of the road to the right, and wait until 5:00am to  restart.
  • The day after, 157 minor traffic accidents were reported around the country, slightly less than average for a typical Monday and nobody died.
  • Hundreds of new buses were purchased by municipalities around the country in preparation, and around 8,000 older buses were reconfigured with doors on both sides.
  • The total cost of amending public transportation came in at 301,457,972 Swedish kronor($69m).
    On March 29, 2004, Ireland went further than any other country and banned smoking in the workplace.
  • The WHO 2004 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) also has played a key role in establishing the future social norms for tobacco as a dangerous substance to public health.
  • Ashtrays vanished from over 10,000 pubs, as well as clubs and restaurants.
    Those caught smoking faced a hefty €3,000 fine.
  • Despite early scepticism, it soon became obvious that the ban had been a huge success. Cigarette sales fell by 60pc in bars and it was reported that 7,000 people gave up smoking in the first 12 months after the ban came into effect.
  • Today smoking bans are commonplace in countries from Brazil to Bhutan, although there is still variation – and in the US the laws are at state level, meaning that they vary hugely from one city to another.
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Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported < (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)Photo: Kungsgatan, Stockholm, on Dagen H., 3 September 1967, during the night Sweden had changed from left-side traffic to right-side traffic. By Jan Collsiöö (public domain)