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Washington, D.C. — More than 1.25 million people are killed on roads each year, the majority in developing countries, making traffic fatalities the tenth leading cause of death worldwide. Children, elderly and poor people are particularly vulnerable. Are drivers and pedestrians always to blame? Are speed limits, seat belts and drunk driving laws the only way to stop this?

New research from WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities and the Global Road Safety Facility of the World Bank finds that the most effective way to prevent traffic deaths is a systemic approach that shifts responsibility away from the drivers and pedestrians using roads to the city planners and officials designing them. Vision Zero and similar policies known in the transport community as the “Safe System” approach start from the premise that human error is inevitable but traffic fatalities and serious injuries are not. WRI analyzed data from 53 countries and found those with a Safe System approach achieved both the lowest rates of traffic deaths and the largest reductions in fatalities over 20 years. If all countries adopted a Safe System approach, nearly a million lives could be saved per year.

“We can dramatically reduce and eventually eliminate road crash fatalities if we follow a Safe System approach,” said Soames Job, Head of the World Bank’s Global Road Safety Facility and one of the report’s co-authors. “Vision Zero is becoming a popular policy to embrace, but what it really means is committing to zero deaths and building in safeguards such as reducing speeds in cities to levels which are safe for pedestrians, replacing intersections with roundabouts, and placing median separation on highways to prevent head-on crashes. By designing transport systems for inevitable human error and placing a greater responsibility on officials, road designers and decision-makers, we can profoundly reduce road crash fatalities.”

Countries like Sweden and the Netherlands began a Safe System approach over 20 years ago and have lowered their traffic fatalities to between 3 and 4 deaths per 100,000 residents, a decrease of more than 50 percent. Why? Because roads in Sweden are built to prioritize safety for pedestrians and cyclists rather than car speeds. Compare this to the global average of 16.4 fatalities per 100,000 residents and 24.1 deaths per 100,000 people in low-income countries.

The report, Safe and Sustainable: A Vision and Guidance for Zero Road Deaths, emphasizes the importance of committing to zero deaths, upholding Safe System principles around shared responsibility and reducing human error, and instituting structural fixes like better sidewalks, bike lanes, high quality public transport, safer vehicles, and faster emergency response.

While the Safe System approach has mostly been applied in high-income countries, it’s already starting to work in some low- and middle-income cities like Mexico City and Bogota, Colombia, and can help many more. The Safe System approach is especially important as less developed countries build out their transportation infrastructure. As these economies and populations grow, infrastructure decisions made now will lock in road deaths for the next 50 years unless they take a systemic approach. Development funding shouldn’t just pay for new roads, but also the safeguards necessary to protect everyone on them.

“Society should not sacrifice health and well-being for other benefits, such as traffic flow or budget savings,” said Claudia Adriazola-Steil , Director of Health and Road Safety, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “Unsafe streets share many characteristics: they lack sidewalks and accessible crossings for pedestrians, they allow unsafe speeds and don’t protect cyclists. The mobility system should create a forgiving environment that minimizes the possibility of crashes, particularly in low- and middle-income countries where 90 percent of traffic deaths occur.”

WRI found that to be successful in eliminating road deaths, policymakers can’t take a piecemeal approach but must commit to Safe System principles:

  • humans make errors,
  • humans are vulnerable to injury,
  • responsibility for the consequences should be shared,
  • no death or serious injury is acceptable, and
  • the best approach is a proactive, systemic one.

Drawing on a literature review, interviews with sector experts, statistical analyses and the authors’ direct experience, the report provides guidance for policymakers to develop evidence-based, context-specific strategies that save lives. “Safe and Sustainable” emphasizes eight key action areas to create a Safe System including:

Land use planning that reduces the need for private vehicle travel and matches road function with land uses.

Road design and engineering — measures such as traffic calming that protect vulnerable road users, median-divided motorways where head-on crashes occur, and roundabouts in dangerous intersections.

Mobility planning that makes cycling and walking safe, and emphasizes mass transit.

Speed management of vehicles to establish appropriate limits for different road types through regulation, enforcement and road design.

Enforcement of laws and regulations — risk factors such as drunk driving, seat belts, motorcycle helmets and child restraints.

Education and capacity building not only to improve public knowledge of traffic regulations and safe practices, but to empower decision-makers and mobility system designers to understand and apply a Safe System approach.

Vehicle design and technology to reduce the chance of a collision occurring and protect car occupants and other road users in the case that it does.

Post-crash emergency response and care to increase the chance of survival in the case that a crash does occur.

Under a Safe System approach, countries should set a goal of zero or near zero deaths. Although many countries will not be able to achieve zero deaths in the near term, setting the goal reflects the perspective that these deaths are preventable and unacceptable, and that continuous, proactive effort should be made to reduce them.

Children are particularly vulnerable to road deaths and serious injuries. Traffic collisions are the fifth-leading cause of death among 5- to 9-year-olds and the number one cause of death among 10- to 19-year-olds in developing countries. Many children in these countries walk to school on roads that are dangerous and in poor condition. South Korea, following Safe System tenets, reduced child deaths from traffic crashes by more than 95 percent between 1988 and 2012, by adjusting how schools and dangerous roads interact and reducing children’s exposure to danger while riding in vehicles.

In 82 low- and middle- income countries, it’s estimated that deaths and injuries cost $220 billion in lost productivity, health expenses and other indirect outlays a year, or 5 percent of GDP. Beyond economic benefits, adopting a Safe System approach can yield environmental and health boons. Safer streets lead to more pedestrians and cyclists, reducing vehicles on the road, decreasing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing physical activity.

“Safe and Sustainable” contributes to an expanding body of research on the Safe System approach, and supports the growing number of governments embracing these policies at the country, state and city level. The principles and action areas presented in this report provides key guidance to create locally relevant road safety strategies and make progress towards zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

Read the full report at: www.wri.org/publication/safe-system.

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