To be effective, any country’s road safety strategy needs to be established on strong conceptual foundations. The Safe System approach is now widely recognised as a coherent and integrated framework for road injury prevention that is relevant to all countries. Its starting point is an ethically inspired perspective that there are no acceptable level of road deaths and serious injuries and that road users respecting the rules of their road networks have a right to expect that they should be safe. Our intrinsic human vulnerabilities are at the centre of the Safe System approach and from this flow a circle of protective interventions (See Box 4).
The four guiding general principles of the Safe System approach are:
– people make mistakes that can lead to road traffic crashes;
– the human body has a known, limited physical ability to tolerate crash forces before harm occurs;
– individuals have a responsibility to act with care and within traffic laws, but a shared responsibility exists with those who design, build, manage and use roads and vehicles to prevent crashes resulting in serious injury or death and to provide post-crash care; and
– in order to multiply their effects, all parts of the system must be strengthened in combination, and road users are still protected if one part fails.
Guidance on implementation of the Safe System approach is available in the OECD/International Transport Forum’s (ITF)25 recent report ‘Zero Road Deaths and Serious Injuries: Leading a Paradigm Shift to a Safe System’. It recommends that priority be given to policies and measures that achieve the fundamental goal of limiting crash forces to levels that do not exceed levels that will cause serious injury or death. This requires a combination of measures to prevent dangerous behaviours and ensure the use of safe vehicles on safe roads.
Speed management becomes a critical overall policy instrument where avoiding any impact above 30 km/h is a critical life-saving requirement. This is because an adult pedestrian has less than a 20% chance of dying if struck by a car at 50 km/h but almost a 60% risk of being killed at 80 km/h. In high-income countries, speed contributes to about a third of deaths on the roads. This increases to nearly half in low and middle income countries. And yet, a 5% decrease in average speeds can result in a 30% reduction in the number of fatal road crashes26.
From the perspective of vulnerable road users, who account for nearly half of all road fatalities, it becomes clear why speed management lies at the heart of the Safe System approach. And this could not be more powerfully the case when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable of all, our children. Every day, approximately 3000 children and adolescents are killed or seriously injured in road crashes. No one could possibly argue that children are responsible for this appalling tragedy and so it must be the duty of governments and the wider community to make roads safe for children.
A prime example of this approach is the Safe Routes to School project of the Global Initiative for Child Health and Mobility which promotes the vision that every child will have a safe and healthy journey to and from school by 2030. (See Box 5). This highly focused campaign is obviously designed to protect children, but its practical impact would benefit the entire community. Because if road networks are all designed, built, and managed with child safety as a priority then it is certain that they will be safe for everyone.
A Safe & Healthy Journey to School for Every Child by 2030
Every day more than 3000 children and adolescents – a number equivalent to the student population of two large schools – suffer a road traffic death or serious injury. Road danger and air pollution blight the school journeys and lives of millions more. The health burden to children caused by motorised traffic constitutes a major obstacle to child development and an unacceptable and preventable human tragedy.
The Global Initiative for Child Health & Mobility is a coalition of organisations (UNICEF, UNEP, Overseas Development Institute, Save the Children, World Resources Institute, and the FIA Foundation) working together to support the objective of a safe and healthy journey to school for all children by 2030. They are promoting practical and cost-effective solutions based on Safe System transportation design and urban planning; such as safe footpaths, cycle lanes and lower vehicle speed limits; legislation and interventions for motorcycle helmet and seat belt use and safe & affordable public transport; and supporting environmental policy measures to improve air quality.
A child in Africa is twice as likely to die on the roads as a child in any other region. Unlike their peers in wealthier regions, the vast majority of schoolchildren in urban Africa – over 80% in one study – walk to school, and they usually do so unaccompanied27. To encourage safe routes to school, the Global Initiative is working with the non-government organization Amend28 to support School Area Road Safety Assessments and Improvements. These encourage investment in footpaths and safe crossing points, and promote vehicle speed reduction by road design and traffic calming. Amend’s work in Tanzania, with support from the FIA Foundation, have prevented one road traffic injury for every 286 at-risk children, reducing injury rates by at least a quarter, and serious head injuries by half. This approach benefits not only children, but all road users on a continent where at least 50% of people do not have access to a car.
There are some distinct features of the Safe System approach that make it a powerful framework for sustained and effective road injury prevention. It rejects the view that road deaths and injuries are an inevitable price that must be paid for a highly motorised mobility system and challenges the public’s frequently poor perception of risk. It avoids default to primary reliance on behavioural measures which was the tried and failed policy in high income countries in the 1950s and 1960s. Their attempts to eliminate human error by driver education eventually gave way to a more holistic strategy promoting a combination of stronger enforcement supported by public awareness campaigns, safer road design, and improved vehicles and vehicle technologies. This more effective strategy has helped to ‘hard wire’ safety into vehicles and road infrastructure rather than just pursue the impossible task of eliminating all human error on our roads.
The Safe System also embraces a performance dynamic that tries to ensure that all policy instruments are fully utilised. It encourages improvements in the ‘supply side’ of safety by promoting technological innovation, and it stimulates the ‘demand side’ by constantly identifying performance failures across the road transport system. In this way, the Safe System approach serves as a permanent stimulus or ‘nudge29’ to those responsible for road safety – the system managers – to think ambitiously and challenge their own and public perceptions about what can be achieved. An important consequence is that all casualty reduction targets are intermediate, in the sense that their achievement is not regarded as a total success but rather a reason for reassessment and renewal. This prevents any target becoming a measure of an acceptable level of fatality.
Sweden and the Netherlands were the countries that originally pioneered the Safe System approach, otherwise knows as Vision Zero and Sustainable Safety, respectively. Vision Zero was adopted by the Swedish Parliament in 1997 and its principles were subsequently applied across all the country’s modes of transport. In 2016, Anna Johansson, the Minister of Infrastructure, issued a ‘Renewed Commitment to Vision Zero’ which reinforces the country’s intention to maintain Safe System for all future initiatives in transport safety30. A similar Sustainable Safety policy was developed in the Netherlands in the 1990s by the Dutch Institute for Road Safety Research (SWOV) to promote “inherently safe road traffic’. Subsequently, variations of a Safe System have been adopted by, among others, Australia, Luxembourg, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and at a regional level also by the European Commission31. Around the world major cities are doing the same with mayors taking a prominent leadership role. For example, in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has stated that “no level of fatality on city streets is inevitable or acceptable” and the city would “no longer regard traffic crashes as mere ‘accidents’, but rather as preventable incidents that can be systematically addressed”32.
With the Safe System approach now at the centre stage of road safety policymaking at the global, national, and local levels, the urgent task is to encourage its practical application by all UN Member States, particularly low and middle income countries. The ITF has strongly recommended “that all countries, regardless of their level of road safety performance, move to a Safe System approach to road safety”33. This is because its four guiding principles are based on universal applicable laws of physics and the limited tolerance of the human body to uncontrolled kinetic energy. Of course, the policies and measures that will be most effective depend on the different characteristics of each country’s road transport system and the effectiveness of speed management. This largely depends on different road transport modes in use and the injury profile they generate. It is essential to prioritise those measures which are most relevant to the actual circumstances prevailing in each country and then effectively apply them. This will be discussed in the following section.