The Swedish approach:
Adopting a zero target for road accidents
Road accidents in Sri Lanka cause economic losses worth over Rs. 9.34
billion each year. According to Sri Lanka Traffic Police sources, in
2010, 2,630 people died in road accidents while 2,684 such deaths were
reported in 2011. The number of non-grievous road accidents last year
was 18,331 while during the first four months of this year, 6,099
non-grievous road accidents took place. In 2011, the number of fatal
accidents caused by motorbikes was 711; the figure was 413 for lorries,
321 for private buses and 224 for three-wheelers.
These are shocking statistics. It is time we sit up and begin to
think rationally about what should be done.
During the past few years the Government implemented many programs to
reduce road traffic accident fatalities and serious injuries. However,
this performance has not produced visibly safer streets and there are
still serious concerns that we could do significantly better.
There are now signs in other countries that a more radical approach
to this problem is gaining acceptance and credibility. Sweden is already
among those countries with the lowest number of traffic fatalities in
relation to its population. However, in spite of this record, 15 years
ago, the Swedish Parliament introduced a ‘Vision Zero’ policy that
required that fatalities and serious injuries are reduced to zero by
Vision Zero is the Swedish approach to road safety thinking. It can
be summarised in one sentence: No loss of life is acceptable. The Vision
Zero approach has proven highly successful. It is based on the simple
fact that we are human and make mistakes. The road system needs to keep
us moving, but it must also be designed to protect us at every turn.
Freedom to move
Motor vehicles are a passion for people all over the world. They are
a symbol of freedom and progress. The ability to move is crucial in
every aspect of life and certainly the reason why the wheel was invented
in the first place. Mobility is also one of the most important drivers
of economic growth and prosperity, but the relationship between mobility
and prosperity is reversible too.
The statistics clearly show that economic growth also leads to
increased traffic. What happens when traffic increases is well known:
congestion, pollution, climate change and death and serious injury. The
statistics, as we saw, make truly painful reading. Today, road traffic
is the ninth biggest cause of deaths worldwide. By 2030, the rise in
vehicle ownership and use will see road traffic become the fifth largest
cause of deaths, claiming more victims globally than AIDS and
tuberculosis. For people aged between 15 and 29, road traffic accidents
are already the most common way to die.
We know that road traffic is a deadly and daily threat. Why, then, do
we not do more to counter it? For some reason we seem to be more
accepting of fatalities on the roads. Would you get on a plane if you
knew the risks were the same as on the road? Probably not!
Some might argue this is the price we have to pay for mobility and
freedom. We think not. There can be no moral justification for the death
of one single person. You should be able to move freely - and feel safe
at the same time. This is what the Vision Zero Initiative is all about.
Vision Zero starts with a statement: we are human and we make
mistakes. Our bodies are subject to bio-mechanical tolerance limits and
are simply not designed to travel at high-speed. Yet we do so anyway. An
effective road safety system must always take human fallibility into
An individual can feel nervous about standing on a chair to change a
light bulb yet see a train coming and hurry to cross the rails. We have
a very natural fear of heights, but lack the ability to judge velocity.
We’re also naturally prone to be distracted and have our attention
diverted by music, phone calls, smoking, passengers, insects or events
outside the car. On top of this, we just make silly mistakes. The human
factor is always there –24 hours per day and 365 days a year.
Considering this, our road systems are allowing drivers to take risks
way beyond our capability. Road systems are based on all the factors
long known to pose hazards. They have an unclear responsibility chain
that actually blames the victims for crashes and injuries. Only by
designing the entire transport system to cater for human fallibility can
we overcome these risks. Doing so will teach us how to manage kinetic
energy in traffic systems and change road and vehicle design –
separately and in unison.
In every situation a person might fail - the road system should not.
This is the core principle of the Vision Zero.
Transport systems are traditionally designed for maximum capacity and
mobility, not safety. This means road users are held responsible for
their own safety. The Vision Zero Initiative takes the opposite
approach. It places the main burden for safety on system design because
we recognise human weaknesses and low tolerance to mechanical force.
Ultimately, no one should die or suffer serious injury in traffic.
Vision Zero also changes the emphasis in responsibility for road
traffic safety. In all current road transport systems, the road user has
almost total responsibility for safety. In most countries, there are
general rules that the road user should behave in such a way that
accidents are avoided. If an accident occurs, at least one road user
has, by definition, broken the general rule and the legal system can
In contrast, Vision Zero explicitly states that the responsibility is
shared by the system designers and the road user:
* The designers of the system are always ultimately responsible for
the design, operation and use of the road transport system and thereby
responsible for the level of safety within the entire system.
* Road users are responsible for following the rules for using the
road transport system set by the system designers.
* If road users fail to obey these rules due to lack of knowledge,
acceptance or ability, or if injuries occur, the system designers are
required to take further steps to counteract people being killed or
From vision to strategy
There is always one parameter that can be used to dramatically
increase safety: that is to reduce mobility, either for some road user
categories, or to reduce speeds down to a level where accidents do not
cause serious injuries. The correlation between speed and safety is one
of the best-known relationships in the road safety area, both
theoretically as well as empirically. If nothing is done to the inherent
safety of the system, mobility can be reduced to such levels where
almost no accident causes serious injury.
For example, a safe intersection for cars is not an intersection
without accidents, but an intersection where no possible accident will
lead to a serious health loss. In fact, a safe intersection might be one
where there are more accidents than in a less safe solution. The safe
intersection might only be safe for occupants that are properly
restrained in a vehicle with a certain level of crash-worthiness. At the
same time, it might be unrealistic to develop a safe road for occupants
of vehicles who aren't wearing seat-belts. The interfaces must,
therefore, be defined, but only to such a degree that they will be
Vision Zero has many parallels to approaches to environmental issues,
both setting criteria related to what the human being can tolerate. The
Swedish Ministry of Transport and Communications has stated that it is
highly essential that the work on road traffic safety be coordinated, as
far as possible, with the overall work on environmental issues and the
work on other closely related areas of activity. This is mainly due to
the fact that this work is largely based on grass-roots commitment and
partially because of the common ambition to prevent health impairment
and crime both today and tomorrow.
Sri Lanka, of course, has its own set of issues to address in road
safety. Specific conditions might differ from those in Sweden, but the
will to protect the lives and health of men, women and children is a
universal one. The Vision Zero Initiative offers us access to the
experience and knowledge of those involved in Swedish road safety.