‘Like elk wandering around the forest’: The verdict on Swedish drivers

There are few among us who can honestly say we've never cursed a fellow driver under our breath. We asked The Local's readers how you feel about driving in Sweden – and you did not hold back.

'Like elk wandering around the forest': The verdict on Swedish drivers
A driver engaging in 'rattsurfing', driving behind the wheel. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

In terms of fatal accidents, Sweden is one of the safest countries in the world for driving. There has been an overall drop in road deaths in the past decades, and this year the number of people killed in traffic dropped below 100 in January-June – the lowest number of fatal accidents since the country began keeping records.

But nobody is flawless.

Holding your mobile phone while driving only became illegal in 2018. And a recent survey of drivers in Europe suggested that Swedes were the most likely to tailgate, drive too fast or keep their eyes off the road.

Almost anywhere you go in the world, the question of driving style inevitably sparks a big debate – so we decided to ask The Local's readers what you think of the Swedish way. Here's what you had to say:

How would you rate drivers in Sweden?

Seventy-six people responded to our highly unscientific survey, and 30 percent said they thought Swedish drivers were 'good'. But 29 percent said they were only 'average', and 41 percent slammed them as 'bad'.

“Like any country there are the good, the bad, and the ugly drivers. And the same applies to cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists. Using phones while driving, running red lights and speeding are what I think are the main problems in Sweden (and in Australia). It seems that a fair majority of people don't realise the consequences of their actions when driving a 1,000 kilo, or more, lethal weapon,” said an Australian reader.

Do you feel safe on the roads?

The good news was that only 10 percent of respondents said they felt unsafe on Swedish roads, with 49 percent saying they felt safe and 41 percent telling The Local's survey they felt neither safe nor unsafe.

“I have found driving in Sweden to be quite pleasant. The roads are in incredibly good condition compared to Norway. I have driven through the length of Finland, Sweden, and Norway and Swedish road are nice, and generally the drivers in Sweden know what they are doing. There's a bit of road rage begging to happen there, however and it's worse when having Norwegian plates vs Swedish plates,” said Jack Petree, from North America, who lives across the border in Norway and regularly drives in both countries.

Swedish motorways are often relatively empty. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

The readers who said they thought Swedes were good drivers almost unanimously agreed that the best thing about driving in Sweden was that the majority followed the rules and were considerate of fellow road users.

“They are tolerant of other people's mistakes and use their common sense to ensure everyone's safety,” said Sanket Bhatnagar, who lives in Gothenburg and has experience from driving in the US, India and Sweden.

Several also found driving in Sweden less stressful than in many other countries, and with more space on the roads. The speed limit on Swedish motorways is generally 110 km/h, with 120 km/h on some stretches.

But for each respondent praising Swedes for following the rules, there was another claiming they didn't.

“The Swedes drive like elk wandering around the forest,” commented Gothenburg-based reader Roy, who has lived in Sweden for three decades and driven in a range of countries, including the UK, US and Asia.

“They seem to either forget, or refuse to employ, virtually every road safety rule they learn during their driver education classes after they (somehow) pass their test,” said Todd, who has been based in Gothenburg for 12 years and has previously driven in Canada, the US, Germany, France, Austria and Hungary.

“Swedish drivers are unpredictable, you can never know if they will respect their stop or if they will use the roundabouts properly,” noted Alonso Serrano, who lives in Umeå in northern Sweden.

A busy day for traffic in Stockholm. The picture was taken at Midsummer in 2016. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

On the other end of the scale, some argued that Swedish drivers follow rules too much to the letter.

“They follow the law. Literally. Even when you have to bend it for your own or others' safety,” said Moe Asgharzadeh who lives in Stockholm and said he had experience from driving in almost all of Europe, but he also pointed out that “the difference between how drivers in big cities and the countryside drive is quite huge”.

What's the most annoying thing about driving in Sweden?

Tailgating, speeding, failing to indicate and hogging the middle lane were some of readers' top pet peeves.

Most Swedish motorways have only two lanes (in each direction), but through for example Stockholm there are three lanes or even four in some places. The general rule is that slow-moving vehicles should use the right-hand lane, but if the lane is empty other cars should move into it after overtaking on the left. On roads where the speed limit is 70 km/h or less, however, you are allowed to stay in the middle lane if appropriate.

“They are utterly oblivious to what is going on around them. They just don't even look before pulling out, and they never let anyone in when people are trying to join a motorway – it's dangerous. They also sit in the middle lane, which causes havoc and huge queues, while the inside lane is empty,” said a Stockholm-based British driver who has also lived in Germany, where motorways often have three lanes or more.

Mobile phone usage was also a hot topic. Texting or calling while behind the wheel was only fully banned in Sweden in 2018, and several readers claimed that fellow road users in Sweden still often fell foul of the rule.

“This was a huge shock for me. It has finally been banned, but it is not really enforced, so the roads are still full of people with their hands busy on the phones, and sometimes doing dangerous moves because of that.

“This has been a topic quite controversial for me, in which the attitude of Swedes has been a bit like the coronavirus situation. They would call the drivers of other countries crazy, while they assume that they are the best because of the low mortality rate. But then it feels that here no traffic law is ever enforced. I still, after six years, have never been stopped for an alcohol test while driving, which would be common practice in Spain,” said Mercè, adding that driving in Sweden generally felt safe, but that it could be improved.

Most readers also pointed out that there are good and bad drivers in all countries, and it all depends on your perspective. Several said they complained only tongue-in-cheek, and admitted they were not faultless either.

“I see far more idiocy on the roads in the UK. I don't think Swedes are bad drivers at all, despite the speeding, flashing and tailgating,” said a British driver. “As a foreigner used to driving on the wrong side of the road I've probably done more stupid things here than I've seen happen, but my expectations were higher.”

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COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

Certain countries around Europe have stricter policies than others regarding drinking and driving and harsher punishments for those caught exceeding legal limits. Here's what you need to know.

COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

European countries set their own driving laws and speed limits and it’s no different when it comes to legal drink-drive limits.

While the safest thing to do of course, is to drink no alcohol at all before driving it is useful to know what the limit is in the country you are driving in whether as a tourist or as someone who frequently crosses European borders by car for work.

While some countries, such as the Czech Republic, have zero tolerance for drinking and driving, in others people are allowed to have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood while driving.

However, not only can the rules be different between countries, they are usually stricter for commercial (or bus) drivers and novice drivers as well. Besides that, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is extremely difficult to estimate, so the old “one beer is ok” standards no longer safely apply.

In the end, the only way to be safe is to avoid consuming alcohol before driving. Any amount will slow reflexes while giving you dangerous higher confidence. According to the UK’s National Health Service, there is no ‘safe’ drinking level.

How is blood alcohol level measured?

European countries mostly measure blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is the amount, in grams, of alcohol in one litre of blood.

After alcohol is consumed, it will be absorbed fast from the stomach and intestine to the bloodstream. There, it is broken down by a liver-produced enzyme.

Each person will absorb alcohol at their own speed, and the enzyme will also work differently in each one.

The BAC will depend on these metabolic particularities as well as body weight, gender, how fast and how much the person drank, their age and whether or not (and how much) they have eaten, and even stress levels at the time.

In other words there are many things that may influence the alcohol concentration.

The only way to effectively measure BAC is by taking a blood test – even a breathalyser test could show different results. Still, this is the measuring unit used by many EU countries when deciding on drinking limits and penalties for drivers.

Here are the latest rules and limits.

Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and Croatia

In most EU countries, the limit is just under 0.5g/l for standard drivers (stricter rules could be in place for novice or professional drivers).

This could be exceeded by a man with average weight who consumed one pint of beer (containing 4.2% alcohol) and two glasses of red wine (13% alcohol) while having dinner.

If a person is caught driving with more than 0.8g/l of blood alcohol content in Austria, they can pay fines of up to € 5,900 and to have their license taken for one year in some cases.

In France, if BAC exceeds 0.8g/l, they could end up with a 2-year jail sentence and a € 4,500 fine. In Germany, penalties start at a € 500 fine and a one-month license suspension. In Greece, drunk drivers could face up to years of imprisonment.

In Denmark, first time offenders are likely to have their licences suspended and could be required to go on self-paid alcohol and traffic courses if BAC levels are low. Italy has penalties that vary depending on whether or not the driver has caused an accident and could lead to car apprehension, fines and prison sentences.

In Spain, going over a 1.2g/l limit is a criminal offence that could lead to imprisonment sentences and hefty fines. 

Norway, Sweden, and Poland

In Norway, Sweden, and Poland, the limit for standard drivers is 0.2g/l. It could take a woman with average weight one standard drink, or one can of beer, to reach that level.

Penalties in Norway can start at a one month salary fine and a criminal record. In Poland, fines are expected if you surpass the limit, and you could also have your license revoked and receive a prison sentence.

Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia

The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have one of the strictest rules in the European Union. There is no allowed limit of alcohol in the blood for drivers.

In the Czech Republic, fines start at € 100 to € 800, and a driving ban of up to one year can be instituted for those driving with a 0.3 BAC level. However, the harshest penalties come if the BAC level surpasses 1 g/l, fines can be up to € 2,000, and drivers could be banned from driving for 10 years and imprisoned for up to three years.

This is intended to be a general guide and reference. Check the current and specific rules in the country you plan to travel to. The easiest and best way to be safe and protect yourself and others is to refrain from drinking alcohol and driving.