How to create safer streets with the Vision Zero approach

A bold approach to safer streets and roads

Swedish safety strategist Matts-Ake Belin was in Auckland to talk about Vision Zero, an alternative strategy to reducing deaths and injuries on the road, an issue our government is now closely examining.

What is Vision Zero?

It’s an ethical imperative that it can’t be acceptable that people get killed or seriously injured if they are using the road transport system. It’s a long-term goal to eliminate fatalities and serious injury, which is very bold. Usually, the traditional approach is about how to create the perfect human being who is doing things right every time. When it comes to safety, it’s very much focussed on you as an individual road user, [that] you have a responsibility for your own safety. Vision Zero challenges that.

So it’s about designing a safe environment for imperfect people?

Instead of thinking that we can create this perfect human being, we have to realise we have the road users we have – young people, old people – all kinds of people and all people make mistakes. They are not perfect and we have to accommodate for that. People are fragile; we now know how much energy the human body can tolerate, for example, if you get hit by a car at 50km/h, the risk that you will die is about 80 percent but if you get hit by a car at 30km/h, the risk is less than 10 percent. So it’s a huge difference. With Vision Zero, the responsibility is on the system designers.

Can you describe practical examples of how the Vision Zero approach works?

If you have a typical intersection and you have problems, you put up traffic lights. The traffic lights will reduce crashes in that intersection but those that will happen will be very severe, because the typical situation is someone by mistake goes against a red light and due to the high speed, the outcome will be very severe. But if you create a roundabout, it slows down the traffic. It might actually increase crashes a little bit because it’s a little more difficult to drive in a roundabout, but those [crashes] that will happen will be less severe. This roundabout might actually be the difference between life and death. To choose between the lights and the roundabout is not a decision we take as individuals, it’s a designed system. You will [also] see areas where you reduce the speed and traffic calming.

How does it work for cyclists?

Separation is an important thing, creating barriers. But you can’t separate everywhere – you will have some interaction between protected and unprotected road users. And when you have that, you have to give priority to vulnerable road users. You also need to be innovative in the bicycle design [in terms of safety features].

What part does technology play in Vision Zero?

It will help us a lot. You’re talking about automated cars, self-driving cars… these technologies are very much about safety. You have auto-brake systems, you have lots of sensors… so you as a driver may make all these mistakes, but the technology will help. It’s not just about fancy tech, there is the whole road engineering [aspect] – smart speed bumps, for example, so if you drive too fast then the speed bumps will come up. Vision Zero is very much about technology. You [do] find sceptical voices about technology but we can take advantage of technology.

Do you think Sweden can actually get to zero deaths?

In 1997 [when it was first adopted by the Swedish government] it was a vision, now we are getting really serious about this. We have done lots of things and we almost have zero fatalities now. It’s very uncommon for a child in Sweden to get killed in a car accident. So we have some very promising results: we used to have seven fatalities per 100,000 now we have less than three – 2.7. We should be closer to zero by 2050.

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