Thoughtfulness and the System

I’m living right now in Kiruna, Sweden, and the endless contrasts between the cultures, attitudes, and systems of Sweden and America afford me a wonderful chance to contemplate my opinions of things. This is a topic that rarely wears itself out, but there is one particular difference that highlights a choice that businesses must make—driving laws.

In Sweden they follow very similar laws to the U.S. and in fact, a first-time American driver, fresh from the airplane and fighting jetlag’s initial battle really won’t notice much difference at all. Here, they drive on the right side of the road. They stop at stop signs that read STOP in very good English, and they have crosswalks and driver’s licenses and alcohol limits and speedlimits and police cars to enforce it all.

But they also have roundabouts. And they have uncontrolled intersections. And they have certain “head” roads where rules change. And they have this weird propensity to allow others to pass them.

In a roundabout, the person who is in a roundabout has the right-of-way. In an uncontrolled intersections (which, I might add, two of every three are uncontrolled) the person approaching from the right has the right-of-way. Except when one of the roads in the uncontrolled intersection is a “head” road, in which case they have the right-of-way. And when somebody is approaching from the rear, you pull over and let them pass.

Um… Michael, I can hear you saying, these are really no different than what I’m used to. Well, that’s true in principle—there are laws enacted in the States that address all of these things. But really those are fringe cases; I can think of one uncontrolled intersection in my little home town in Washington. Here in Kiruna, with a comparable population, there is exactly one intersection that is controlled by stop signs, and only four that are controlled by lights.

So in practice, there’s a large difference—in the States, you drive and follow the obvious, pre-defined rules. In Sweden, you pay attention to what’s going on around you. Are you on a head road? Is that car approaching from the right? Are you approaching an uncontrolled intersection? Are you overtaking that car? You are forced to think the entire time. You’re forced to be considerate.

It’s almost like in our quest for efficiency and order, the States designed the road system to allow for a driver to drive without thinking, to just trust that the system will take care of you, while in Sweden they demand a certain presence of mind, a certain level of attentive selflessness.

This Swedish attentiveness allows for the drivers that are outside the norm, for drivers in the third standard deviation. It allows for large tracked equipment and for daddies with their strollers and for underage drivers in their underpowered cars and for road construction without flaggers or traffic control. The American system optimizes for the 1st standard deviation, and as long as you stay inside the confines of “normal” you’ll get to your destination faster and easier.

There is a joy in driving in Sweden that there isn’t in America, and there is a relaxing ease in driving in America that is missing in Sweden.

Are you going to create a system that is slower, safer, and more considerate? or are you going to create a system where the decisions have been made and the fringes have been ignored? Do you want the workers in your system to be forced to make decisions at every turn? or do you want the majority of small decisions made for them to allow them to better concentrate on the big decisions? Do you want thoughtfulness or efficiency?

  • Matthew

    Is the overall system really more efficient? Of course it gives a faster result on the good days, but does it pay off when the extra costs due to non-standard conditions (especially if they are rare and expensive) are included?
    For example, everyone loses a little time every day with the slower system, but road work is cheaper because flaggers are not needed.
    Or another angle: Sweden has 3 road fatalities / 100.000 people / year. The USA has 11.6. (
    The cost to Sweden for those fatalities is about 700 M EUR (, or about $100 / person / year. Extrapolating to the traffic fatality rate of the USA may mean that Americans pay more for their everyday efficiency to the tune of $250 / person / year in extra traffic fatality costs.

    • michaelleland

      That’s a good point–overall, it might not be more efficient when you factor in costs. However, for the people within the first standard deviation, traveling in America is wonderful, as evidenced by a road trip on I-90.

      Fatalities are expensive, although you might not be able to calculate America’s cost by extrapolating Sweden–there must be scales of economy somewhere :) Obviously, the Swedish system is designed to give less fatalities.

      Also, “efficient” in the article is ignoring costs, and concentrating on the ease and speed of getting from point A to point B. Sweden (and Norway is even worse due to its terrain) does not allow for quick road trips. Google Maps shows this: traveling accross country (New York to LA) averages 66.5 miles per hour, while Sweden (Kiruna to Göteborg) averages only 54.5. Clearly, this hardly scientific, but it is instructive.