Mobility: Interview

Road safety: Sweden’s vision zero

Road accidents are inevitable in a mobile society. Wrong, says Claes Tingvall, of the Swedish Road Administration and an architect of the Vision Zero policy ...
A competitor falls as he speeds down a street during the second German office chair racing .../ Credits: Reuters

Allianz Knowledge: No more fatalities on our roads. How could this be possible?
Claes Tingvall: The Vision Zero policy is not a figure; it is a shift in philosophy. Normal traffic policy is a balancing act between mobility benefits and safety problems. The Vision Zero policy refuses to use human life and health as part of that balancing act; they are non negotiable.

Today’s systems assume that humans don’t make mistakes. If you make a mistake for two seconds, you might be killed. We have effectively been forbidden to crash since the 1920s. But the system should tolerate mistakes, and this policy says explicitly that you should design the system on the basis of human failure.

We know we won’t reach zero, but we could probably reduce road accident fatalities by 80 to 90 percent by adopting these fundamental principles.

What measures have you put in place to achieve such cuts?
The biggest changes have been in road infrastructure design. Traditional road design aimed to reduce the number of crashes by widening and straightening roads. But that has no impact on the severity of injuries because vehicle speeds increase.

We aimed not to decrease the number of crashes, but to decrease the fatalities and serious injuries with traffic calming measures like roundabouts and elevated crossings. The body has crash tolerance limits; they should not be exceeded.

As soon as the driver loses control, the infrastructure should take over to mitigate the seriousness of the crash, for example by clearing trees and boulders from the sides of roads and installing side barriers; it is kinetic energy control.What are the best ways to improve road safety by controlling that energy?

Barriers and roundabouts and design for pedestrians have been the most important. The idea of ”shared space” between pedestrians and vehicles has been trialed successfully in Gothenburg and other cities, as long as the environment has been redesigned for slow traffic.

We have also adapted two-lane roads—real killers—into roads with two lanes in one direction and one lane in the opposite direction, the 2+1 system. But the real trick was a crash barrier between the lanes, which saves approximately 50 to 60 fatalities per year.

How much does this cost?
It costs around one twentieth of the investment in a new freeway, less than 200 Euros per meter compared to about 7000 Euros per meter to construct a new road. We have retrofitted about 2000 kilometers of road, covering about 20 percent of Sweden’s traffic flow.

The new safety principle, to control kinetic energy, is by itself cheaper than accident prevention. And once that investment is made it produces benefits every year.

Furthermore, 2+1 roads have higher speed limits today than they did before modification, so by creating better safety we have also improved mobility.

Vision Zero tilts the balance of responsibility from drivers towards road builders and managers. Does it also shift legal responsibility?
You can’t solve safety simply by placing a legal requirement on the user. Road users must follow the rules of the system but system designers—road managers, the auto industry, police, and politicians—are responsible for safety within the entire system.

Legislation that requires infrastructure providers to demonstrate road safety improvements is coming. It places quite a large burden on local and state government. However, it won’t send road administrators to jail.

How has Vision Zero made vehicles safer?
The problem is safety equipment is often optional. We couldn’t regulate as a single country in Europe, so we had to invent ways to get new safety features into the marketplace. Part of the Vision Zero strategy is to improve the demand for safety. 

Electronic stability control (ESC) makes sure drivers don’t lose control. It reduces crash fatalities by about 20 percent, second only to seatbelts in terms of in-vehicle safety measures.

We told occupational health and safety inspectors to make sure company fleets had ESC, we made sure all imported cars had it; we spoke to insurance companies about favoring ESC cars. Now 98 percent of new cars sold have ESC, the world’s highest penetration rate. 

We have also introduced seatbelt reminders in cars, and alcohol interlocks in commercial vehicles, taxis and fleet vehicles. In buses and trucks the penetration is around 30 to 40 percent and increasing rapidly.

Does Vision Zero mean Zero Tolerance for traffic violations like drink driving or speeding?
That is the other side of the coin. We will provide a safer road system but we also place a higher demand on road users.

The laws on drink driving have been strengthened. You are more or less sent to jail if found drink driving, and we have many random breath tests.

We need dialogue with the public to build social norms. With alcohol we have built a social norm—only 0.2 percent of the traffic stream is driving drunk. We have not yet created a social norm for speeding.

What is unique is that we are one of the first countries to change speed limits to conform to the crash worthiness of the infrastructure. So we have higher speeds on divided roads with barriers, but lower speeds on undivided roads.

What difference has Vision Zero made?
In 2008, 397 people died because of road traffic accidents. That is 4.3 fatalities per 100,000 citizens, probably the second or third lowest rate in the world, and around half the European Union average.

In 1997, the year Vision Zero was adopted, there were 541 road deaths in Sweden. We have seen something like a 30 percent drop in fatalities.

How could Vision Zero improve? What remains to be done?

Almost everything. The principles have been proven to work, now we are implementing them. The most dramatic change will be in the vehicles, both to support the driver but also to use the time between the driver losing control and before the crash. This is a second or two; an ocean of time to do quite dramatic things like braking and steering to make the vehicle more crashworthy.

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