Case Study: Sweden’s leading road safety vision

Case Study: Sweden’s leading road safety vision

Led by its forward-thinking ‘Vision Zero’ initiative, Sweden’s approach to road safety means that it now has some of the safest roads in the world. According to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) Report1, the UK has 5.1 road fatalities per 100,000 vehicles, compared to Sweden which sees 4.7 road fatalities per 100,000 motor vehicles – the equivalent of 272 deaths a year.

Although our own research2 revealed that 80% of UK drivers rate themselves as an 8/10 or above in terms of road safety, there were still a staggering 194,477 reported road casualties in Great Britain in 20143. Therefore, it’s clear that the UK still has some way to go to reduce the number of fatalities and accidents on our roads. So, we spoke to Johan Strandroth, a Traffic Safety Advisor at the Swedish Transport Administration, and Lucy Amos, a Research Advisor from road safety charity Brake. They told us more about Sweden’s approach to road safety, and what the UK can learn from Vision Zero.

What is ‘Vision Zero’?

Vision Zero is Sweden’s unique approach to road safety, which is “based on developing safer roads, safer speeds and safer road users, setting appropriate speed limits and ensuring an effective post-crash response,” explains Amos. The Swedish Trade and Invest Council reveals that “there was a governmental decision in the nineties in Sweden, to decide on the vision for zero deaths and serious injuries followed by traffic accidents.” Conceived in 1994, three years later a Road Traffic Safety Bill wrote Vision Zero into Swedish Law. The Vision Zero initiative follows one simple belief: “No loss of life is acceptable4.” Therefore, it aims to stop all fatalities and serious injuries by 2020, by following four principles5:

1. Ethics

Human life and health should be prioritised above mobility and accessibility.

2. Responsibility

Strandroth tells us that “an important part of Vision Zero is that the safety of a system is primarily the shared responsibility of the system designers, in contrary to the ‘blame the victim’ approach where road users are accountable for the greater share of the responsibility.” Therefore, responsibility is shared between road users and those who provide and regulate the road system, such as the car making industry and police.

3. A philosophy for safety

Road systems should understand that we are all human and can make mistakes, and should consequently minimise the opportunity for error, and the harm caused if an incident does occur.

4. Creating mechanisms for change

Some of the measures undertaken in Sweden to date include:

  • Vehicle technology, such as ensuring high levels of seat belt use and fitting seat belt reminders.
  • Traffic control and surveillance, including increased use of speed camera technology and a higher number of random breath tests.
  • Education, training and planning. For example, setting safety performance goals for various parts of the road traffic system.
  • Infrastructure, including installation of crash-protective central barriers on roads, and the introduction of 2+1 roads.

2+1 roads

A 2+1 road is intended to help reduce accidents caused by overtaking. With three lanes, “the design has one continuous lane in each direction, a middle lane changing direction every one to two kilometres with a median barrier separating the two directions6.”

The first Swedish 2+1 road was introduced in 1998, and it’s predicted that these roads have helped to save around 145 lives over the first decade of Vision Zero7. Strandroth confirms that “converting a 2-way rural road into a 2+1 road reduced fatal crashes by approximately 80%. Fatal passenger car head-on crashes are almost eliminated.”

Adopted in other countries such as New Zealand and Germany, there are clear benefits of investing in these types of roads to help prevent collisions and save lives. However, Amos tells us that 2+1 roads are still “reasonably rare and are not currently in effect in the UK.” She explains that “introducing these would involve updating the Highway Code and engaging with policy-makers (for example, the Department for Transport, Transport select committee and Highways England),” as well as “road planners, to assess which routes on the strategic road network would be best suited to this style of road design.”

Drink driving

Drink driving is a significant factor which can influence the safety on the roads. Liz Brooker from Road Safety GB tells us that a country “we can look at with some degree of jealousy would be Sweden, who has a limit so low that it is basically a zero limit combined with a good level of police enforcement.”

Sweden has a drink driving (BAC) limit of 0.02%, compared with the UK’s 0.08%8. This is coupled with strict punishments, should a driver get caught driving over the legal limit. We got in touch with Steve Robertshaw from VisitSweden who revealed that “penalties for drink driving in Sweden are a fine or imprisonment not exceeding six months. Additionally, under normal circumstances the driving license would be revoked for 12 months too.” However, “in the case of aggravated drunk driving the penalty can be imprisonment not exceeding two years and the driving license can be revoked for 24 months. Aggravated drunken driving combined with gross negligence manslaughter can provide up to eight years imprisonment.”

The Department for Transport9 estimate that in 2013, there were between 230 and 290 people killed in accidents in Great Britain, where at least one driver was over the limit. Looking at reducing the UK’s drink driving limit, and further deterring motorists to get behind the wheel after they’ve had a drink, could help to reduce incidents involving drunk drivers in this country.

The success so far

According to a report by The Economist10 about Sweden’s road safety, “although the number of cars in use in the country and the number of miles have both doubled since 1970, the number of road deaths has fallen by four-fifths over the same period.” Research has also revealed that fatalities involving pedestrians have fallen almost 50% in the last five years.11

These figures clearly show how Sweden’s forward-thinking approach to road safety, and the different elements that they’ve rolled out, is having a positive impact on keeping their roads safer – ultimately reducing the number of deaths on the roads by a significant amount, as they work towards their Vision Zero goal.

What can the UK learn?

We asked Strandroth about what the UK can learn from Sweden’s road safety approach. He told us:

I would say that the first important thing is to get a broad societal agreement that no fatalities are acceptable. Once that is in place it is time to develop design principles for your road network, asking the question: How does the transport system in UK look like where no one gets killed? Next step is of course implementation and public acceptance for these interventions.

Amos adds that the UK can learn from Sweden’s Vision Zero initiative by introducing meaningful road causality reduction targets. She explains that “although the overarching target is no deaths or serious injuries on the road, policy-makers have effectively integrated mid-way reduction targets, giving the government short-term goals working towards their long-term aim of zero road deaths and serious injuries.” As a result, this helps those responsible for passing these policies – such as civil servants, the police and road planners – to become more aware of their short term roles, and provides a sense of positive motivation to meet these targets.

Therefore, from setting clear goals, through to reassessing drink drive limits, the UK can look to Sweden as an example of how to tackle our own road safety challenges – to help protect the lives of our loved ones when travelling on the road.

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Additional Sources

[1] Calculations: Total population (9,571,105)/100,000 = 95.71, WHO estimated road traffic fatalities (272)/ 95.71 = 2.8 Total registered vehicles (5,755,952) = 57.55, WHO estimated road traffic fatalities (272)/ 57.55 = 4.7
[2]Exclusive survey of 1,094 British drivers conducted online by YouGov for Aviva in conjunction with the Telegraph on 7-9 December 2015

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