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Road safety

Vision Zero and the race to reduce road deaths

Monday, 7 June 2021


There’s a lot more to the concept of Vision Zero than “just” drastically reducing road deaths. Its principles also include drastically reducing the causes of road deaths and, just as crucially, implementing far-reaching educational programmes for children, the road users of the future. Intertraffic spoke with Peter van der Knaap of SWOV, European Cyclists Federation Alexander Buczyński, Rafaela Machado of IRAP, Porte Alegre of Machado and UN Representative Natalie A. Draisin in the subject of road safety to ascertain what has been happening over the past year and just how tomorrow’s drivers are going to fare.

Vision Zero

Vision Zero is a multi-national road traffic safety project that aims to achieve a highway system with no fatalities or serious injuries involving road traffic. It started in Sweden and was approved by their parliament in October 1997. A core principle of the vision is that 'Life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within the society' rather than the more conventional comparison between costs and benefits, where a monetary value is placed on life and health, and then that value is used to decide how much money to spend on a road network towards the benefit of decreasing risk.

Vision Zero was introduced in 1995 and over the past 26 years it has been variously adopted in different countries (with Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada, the UK and US the first five to fully embrace the notion), although its description varies significantly. The countermeasures implemented in Vision Zero continue to be education, enforcement and engineering, applied since the 1930s.

The concept of Vision Zero is based on an underlying ethical principle that "it can never be ethically acceptable that people are killed or seriously injured when moving within the road transport system." As an ethics-based approach, Vision Zero functions to guide strategy selection and not to set particular goals or targets. In most road transport systems, road users bear complete responsibility for safety. Vision Zero changes this relationship by emphasizing that both transportation system designers and road users share responsibility.

It’s clearly working. Take the Netherlands as a perfect example. In 1980 there were 1996 people killed on Dutch roads. By 2013 that figure had dipped below 500. Cars are safer, roads are safer… but by the same token drivers have come to rely on the life-saving technology embedded in their vehicles to ensure they emerge intact from dangerous situations that may well have claimed their lives as little as 25 years ago.

Sustainable Road Safety approach

Peter van der Knaap, Managing Director of SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research in the Netherlands, and one of the panellists for Intertraffic’s forthcoming road safety episode of its On Air series on 22 June, a sustainability-led approach is key to the overall success of any scheme designed to save lives.

“The Sustainable Road Safety (SRS) approach of the Netherlands aims to prevent crashes whenever possible and to prevent the risk of serious injury much as possible,” he explains.

“The vision is clear: in a sustainably safe road traffic environment the infrastructural layout considerably reduces the risk of crashes. In case crashes do still occur, the process that determines the crash severity is conditioned in such a way that serious injury is virtually excluded. Protagoras’ assertion that man is the measure of all things is used as the point of departure. Nearly all crashes have their origin in human error. Hence, the purpose is clear:

(1) to reduce the number of errors that are committed by providing clear traffic rules and road design and at the same time; and

(2) to construct infrastructure and vehicles in such a ‘forgiving’ way that errors do no longer have fatal consequences.”

Consequently, such a sustainably safe road traffic system prevents road deaths, serious road injuries and permanent injury by systematically reducing the underlying risks of the entire traffic system.

“Human factors are the primary focus: by starting from the demands, competencies, limitations and vulnerabilities of people, the traffic system can be realistically adapted to achieve maximum safety”

“Human factors are the primary focus: by starting from the demands, competencies, limitations and vulnerabilities of people, the traffic system can be realistically adapted to achieve maximum safety. Like Vision Zero, SRS it is a ‘safe system’ approach that combines the three E’s’: engineering, education and enforcement in a methodical and scientifically based way,” says van der Knaap. “During the past 25 years, the SRS approach has accomplished a small metamorphosis of the physical appearance of the Netherlands. The road network is given a hierarchical structure consisting of access roads, distributor roads and through roads. In addition, literally thousands of roundabouts have been constructed and many separated bicycle paths. Evaluation research proved that SRS helps to save many people from fatal road crashes and severe injuries.”

In 2018, SWOV launched the third edition of the SRS approach, in which five road safety principles are presented:

1. Functionality of roads;

2. (Bio)Mechanics: limiting differences in speed, direction, mass and size, and giving road users appropriate protection;

3. Psychologics: aligning the design of the road traffic environment with road user competencies.

The other two principles are organization principles now:

4. Effectively allocating Responsibility;

5. Learning and Innovation within the traffic system.

“Concerning the design principles, vulnerable modes of transport (pedestrians and cyclists in particular) and the competence of older road users were more explicitly included than before,” van der Knaap adds. “The third edition also pays greater attention to cyclist crashes not involving motorized vehicles. Responsibility is emphasized with respect to the role and potential actions of stakeholders in realizing an inherently safe road traffic system. Herein, the importance is stressed of an in-depth analysis of all fatal road crashes to learn from the things that still go wrong.”

“In the end, every road user – be it schoolchild, commuter, commercial driver or active senior – will come home safely.”

Furthermore, this third edition of the vision calls for a pro-active and risk-based approach, using both crash statistics and road safety performance indicators (or surrogate safety measures) as safety indicators and as a basis for action.

“The aim is to work systematically towards maximum road safety for everybody by means of this third edition of Sustainable Safety, the ultimate ambition being a casualty-free traffic system. In other words, in the end, every road user – be it schoolchild, commuter, commercial driver or active senior – will come home safely.”

Cycling safety: Saddle up

Van der Knaap, somewhat pertinently, mentioned cyclists. Think of the principles of Vision Zero and unless you are a keen, committed cyclist, it’s likely that your first thought is that its main goal is to reduce automotive accidents and resultant KSI statistics. This is certainly not how the European Cyclists’ Federation2018F (ECF) considers Vision Zero, as the organisation’s Infrastructure Officer Alexander Buczyński elucidates.

“Cycling is traditionally perceived as a local and primarily urban mobility issue. Most cycle trips are indeed relatively short and the potential for cycling is highest in densely populated cities. However, across the EU as much as 42% of cyclist fatalities occur outside urban areas which suggests that cycling infrastructure is not only needed in cities,” he says.

“Lots of issues are at play here but an important factor is that cycling is often not considered on the national or European level. This has many consequences, including a lack of coordinated approach, and cycling being forgotten about in major infrastructure projects.

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“Across the EU as much as 42% of cyclist fatalities occur outside urban areas which suggests that cycling infrastructure is not only needed in cities.”

“For example, major roads and railroads belonging to the EU’s Trans-European transport Network (TEN-T) can create dangerous barriers for walking and cycling. In Hungary, the construction of the M5 motorway destroyed an existing cycle path connecting Szeged with neighbouring towns and a part of the international cycle route EuroVelo 13 – Iron Curtain Trail. In Poland, a section of the flagship EU Rail Baltica project cut towns and villages in half, with only one cycle crossing provided for 10km (4km less than for cars).”

For cyclists who believe that they are the “forgotten” or “ignored” road users, these incidences merely add fuel to their fire.

“These big investments could of course also be used to create new connections or even prioritise active mobility in local traffic,” Buczyński suggests. “But if the opportunities to integrate cycling into a major infrastructure project are missed during design and construction, mistakes are very expensive and difficult to rectify. For example, the cycling bridge over the Brussels ring road on the F3 cycle highway, currently under construction, costs €24 million – more than the rest of the 26-km cycle route between Brussels and Leuven put together.”

Integration of cycling into TEN-T becomes more and more important with the extraordinary boom in e-bikes. E-bikes extend the range of daily cycling, offering healthy and sustainable mobility to new areas, but in order to realise their potential, cycling networks need to reach out from core urban areas into suburbs and the surrounding regions.

“The growing popularity of cycle tourism, estimated in the EU’s Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy to contribute already more than €176billion to tourism revenues, increases demand for safe long-distance cycle routes,” Buczyński maintains.

“The upcoming revision of the TEN-T guidelines, to be finalised by 2023, offers a window of opportunity to systematically integrate cycling into the EU’s flagship transport policy. This should be approached from two angles: integrate EuroVelo, the European cycle route network, into the TEN-T, alongside the other modes of transport, and integrate selected elements of cycling infrastructure into other TEN-T infrastructure projects. The European cycle route network would integrate existing national and regional cycle networks, and form a backbone where these do not exist yet, whereas integrating critical elements of cycling facilities in TEN-T projects would lead to more efficient public spending, with higher quality and more functionality provided for a lower price.”

Road safety in United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: Children first

For Rafaela Machado, the International Road Assessment Programme’s (IRAP) Star Rating for Schools Global Coordinator, believes that educating junior school children is key to instilling the idea of road safety into the mind’s of our future drivers. Star Ratings for Schools (SR4S) is an initiative of the International Road Assessment Programme – a charity with a vision for a world free of high-risk roads - and is designed to help countries meet these global targets for child and adolescent pedestrians. It is a systematic, evidence-based approach to measure, monitor and communicate the risk on roads around schools.

“Each day 500 children are killed in preventable traffic crashes around the world. The United Nations has included road safety in its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and set Global Road Safety Performance Targets. Target 3 reads ‘By 2030, all new roads achieve technical standards for all road users that take into account road safety, or meet a three star rating or better’. Target 4 points out that ‘By 2030, more than 75% of travel on existing roads is on roads that meet technical standards for all road users that take into account road safety’.

“Each day 500 children are killed in preventable traffic crashes around the world.”

The road features and traffic conditions that affect pedestrian safety on a journey to school are known. SR4S allows the easy assessment of each of these features and using evidence-based research of their impact on safety, a Star Rating can be calculated at spot locations, where 1-star is the least safe and 5-star is the safest. SR4S combines a central web application and a data collection Android app to harness the power of the IRAP Star Rating for Pedestrians.

Says Porte Alegre, Brazil-based Machado: “Once the risk is measured, effective scenarios of road treatments and their impact on safety can be simulated to identify cost-effective solutions. The implementation of the treatments can ultimately be tracked so that the partner and funder can see the benefits of their investment and the school teaching staff can educate the pupils on the correct use of the treatments.”

SR4S can be used at different stages of a school zone assessment project and with different purposes:

  • Measuring safety before and after road improvements.
  • Prioritising areas for interventions.
  • Providing evidence-based rating of road safety.
  • Supporting education campaigns for students, drivers and the wider community for safe travel around schools.
  • Guiding decision-makers on the selection of road upgrades around schools by assessing different treatment options and combinations.

“SR4S is recommended as a complementary tool to support the programmes already established by different organisations and governments. The SR4S methodology has already been applied by partners leading assessments around 730 schools in 44 countries,” Machado says. “These projects put the school communities at the centre of the discussion and empowers youth on advocating for safer roads through technology and global and internationally recognised metrics.”

Improve road safety around school zones in Ho Chi Minh City

As an example of global collaboration, in Vietnam, AIP Foundation has partnered with local government in Ho Chi Minh City and Gia Lai Province to assess and improve school zones, supported by Safe Kids Worldwide and FedEx, and by Fondation Botnar, the Global Road Safety Partnership (GRSP), Nissan Motor Corporation, Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), and Kova Paint Company, respectively.


“SR4S was integrated as part of AIP Foundation’s strategy to educate children and community members, support legislative change by increasing collaboration with local government and police enforcement, and assess infrastructure to guide upgrades,” she continues.

“Star Ratings for Schools was integrated as part of a strategy to educate children and community members, support legislative change by increasing collaboration with local government and police enforcement.”

School community empowered in Colombia

School principals, students and parents are key organisms for the success of school assessments, through valuable inputs that inform critical locations and routes and demand safer streets. In Colombia, as part of the Bloomberg Initiative for Global Road Safety, Bogota Mobility Secretariat launched their 2000th safe school zone.


“Here the SR4S reports were used in the process of engaging the community and developing support for the intervention among local decision makers, residents and the school community,” Machado concludes. “The countermeasures were first tested with temporary materials to verify their impact. Cones and plants were introduced to create safe pedestrian crossings to the school, protect vulnerable users and enforce motorised vehicles to travel at a safe speed. After adjusting detailed designs and meeting with the community to discuss impressions and results, a permanent solution was implemented.”

Vision Zero for Youth in US and Ethiopia

We’ve all read the statistics – but what are the root causes of those still-horrifying numbers? Natalie A. Draisin, Director of the FIA Foundation’s North American Office and United Nations Representative, identifies a number of vital questions that need to be answered in order for Vision Zero, or indeed any scheme designed to make the roads safer for everyone, to be truly and globally successful.

“What causes road traffic crashes? Excessive and unsafe speeds. In the US, we have an extremely high motorization because of a love affair with our cars. This leads us to build roads for cars, not people. We’ve seen this failed model exported globally. We are infamous for building multi-lane highways through low-income areas, leading to a risk of death, injuries, and air pollution. Our transportation system discriminates because we built it do exactly that,” she states.

“In the US, we have an extremely high motorization because of a love affair with our cars. This leads us to build roads for cars, not people. We’ve seen this failed model exported globally.”

“Globally, we neglect pedestrians. Our partner the International Road Assessment Program (IRAP) estimates that nearly 90% of the region’s roads with speeds over 40km/h and pedestrians don’t have pedestrian crossings and 68% don’t have formal sidewalks. This helps to explain why more children are killed globally while walking rather than while being driven in cars.”

On a similar path to IRAP, the FIA Foundation is doing sterling work to protect our most vulnerable group of road users. How, Intertraffic wondered, does the impact on children inform their work?

“We have to start with kids, because road traffic crashes are the number one killer of youth at home and abroad,” says Draisin, forcefully.

“Together with the National Center for Safe Routes to School, we created Vision Zero for Youth. Children are a necessary place to start, to scale up the safe systems approach (the foundation of Vision Zero) throughout the wider community. We can reach zero when we place children at the heart. Oslo closed areas around schools and calls them heart zones. They also removed about a thousand parking spots, and added bike lanes and footpaths, encouraging people to use public transport. And in 2019 they reached zero city-wide. When we design streets for kids, everyone wins.”

In addition to Bogota and Ho Chi Minh City, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia is also undertaking a comprehensive life-saving, accident-reducing programme.

“Addis Ababa recently won our Vision Zero for Youth award for the great work they’re doing particularly doing the pandemic. They used crash data for 6-15 year olds to map high crash areas around schools, and then scaled that to include 50 schools within a year,” she explains. “They reduced speed limits around schools to 30 m/h, installed crosswalks, speed humps, and rumble strips, and they also have car free days which make it easier for kids, particularly low income kids, to get outside and play. During the pandemic, they converted unused parking lots to cycling training grounds for kids. And they’re making many temporary changes permanent.”

Vision on Vision Zero

But there’s more to be done – Vision Zero plans often exclude children, and sometimes only include them as targets of education.

“We are trying to send kids back to school safely, there is urgency to fix this. The solutions to keeping kids safe from COVID and road traffic injuries on the way to school are low-cost, and one in the same – like creating space for safe school drop off and pick up, or closing down all or part of the street. There are plenty of solutions in the guidance I wrote with UNICEF. National Center for Safe Routes to School estimated that in 1969, almost 50% of kids in the US walked/cycled to school. By 2009, that number was down to 13%. Our overly motorized society, not at all geared towards protecting pedestrians and cyclists, particularly children, is to blame. The pandemic is a chance to change this.”

Finally, will driverless cars ever be safer than manual cars? Draisin has a simple initial answer to that.

“Yes. But we can do better than that. Setting the bar at ‘safe’ just means ‘do no harm’ and that’s not good enough. We’re working with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to raise the bar and ensure that driverless cars improve public health. Driverless cars can connect low/middle income individuals to health care and school, and help them get healthy food in a food desert. They can give elderly folks or people with disabilities the human right of mobility, and fight isolation.

“We could make sure that when driverless cars come to market, the private sector is also required to provide social benefits as a prerequisite to reaching the lucrative urban market.”

“If we want driverless cars to be a solution, to decrease fatalities, and also to be electric so they aren’t polluting, we’ll have to do this through a regulatory and permitting process,” Draisin adds. “We could do something similar to what we did with electrification in the US. When electricity came to cities, those companies were also required to reach rural residents. Cost shifting made this affordable. We could make sure that when driverless cars come to market, the private sector is also required to provide social benefits as a prerequisite to reaching the lucrative urban market.”

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