Report calls for a Safe Systems approach to reduce fatalities

By Robbie Webber

A new report from the World Research Institute finds that the most effective way to prevent traffic deaths is a systemic approach that shifts responsibility away from the drivers and other road users to those responsible for roadway planning and designing, land use mix, providing mobility options, and enforcement of traffic laws. Analysis in 53 countries found that those that have taken a “Safe System” approach have achieved both the lowest rates of fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants and the greatest reduction in fatality levels over the past 20 years.

A key concept of the Safe System approach is that responsibility for safe roads is shared by many actors, and multiple elements can contribute to reducing fatalities. According to the report,

“They include addressing underlying factors—such as land use and mobility planning—to reduce vehicle dependence and promote safe, healthy, and environment-friendly travel modes; comprehensive speed management to set safe speeds; intersection design to allow people to cross safely; road design that accounts for human error; improved public transport; safe vehicle design and technology; and better coordination and quality of post-crash emergency response and care.” [Figure 1]

Figure 1. Source: World Resources Institute

The Safe Systems approach has gained popularity in Europe, the U.S., and other high-income countries under various names such as Vision Zero, Toward Zero Deaths, and Road to Zero. The core of this approach is that humans will make mistakes, and roads, land use, and mobility options must be configured to minimize both the possibility of mistakes and the consequences of mistakes that are made. The approach also emphasizes that safety is a shared social compact.

Many countries have seen a precipitous drop in fatalities after adopting a Safe Systems approach, as seen in Figure 2. Unfortunately, the U.S. has the worst fatality record of developed and high-income countries. On almost every measure, the U.S. has more fatalities than its peers. The report co-authors and researchers call out speed, especially in cities. Roads are designed to allow speeds faster than the posted speed limit, enforcement of posted speed limits is lax, and alternatives to driving are few outside the largest city cores. In addition, faster speeds in urban environments—where different modes are likely to be sharing the road—means that any human errors that occur have a greater potential to result in injury or death to pedestrians and bicyclists.


Figure 2a. Source: World Resources Institute. [Click to enlarge.]

Figure 2b. [Click to enlarge.]

However, even in the U.S., states and cities have seen progress toward reducing fatalities. After Minnesota adopted a Toward Zero Deaths approach in 2003, road fatalities dropped by 40.5 percent in the next ten years. In New York City, the first three years of their Vision Zero approach—from 2013 to 2016—were the safest in the city’s history, with pedestrian fatalities dropping 21 percent and total fatalities dropping 23 percent.

Traffic fatalities in New York dropped again in 2017, with an impressive 32 percent drop in pedestrian deaths and a seven percent reduction in overall traffic deaths from the low 2016 level, marking a new record low. San Francisco also saw a record low in traffic deaths in 2017. Both of these cities were early adopters of Vision Zero.

The report provides recommended steps for countries, states, or cities to move toward a Safe Systems approach. These include publicly setting firm safety goals that reduce fatalities, even when increased driving is projected. The report also criticizes past cost-benefit analyses that allow a certain level of loss of life in order to maximize the economic benefits of mobility. In countries that have adopted a Safe Systems approach, and that have actually reduced fatalities, the initial assumption is that any traffic fatality is unacceptable.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.