Just over 30 years ago, the Swedish parliament had an extraordinary debate as politicians tried to decide how many deaths each year were acceptable on their roads. The consensus? None.
This is the principle of the Vision Zero policy that was introduced in Sweden in 1997; that the acceptable number of deaths or serious injuries on the roads is precisely zero.
It’s a bold, disruptive approach that works. Since Vision Zero started in Sweden road deaths and serious injuries have been reduced by more than 50%. It’s been introduced in other places in Europe, most recently in London. New York embraced Vision Zero four years ago, and Mexico City and Melbourne both introduced it two years ago. These cities have seen reductions in deaths and serious injuries as a result.
Now it’s New Zealand’s turn, and with our horrific annual road toll this can only bring positive outcomes.
Previous safety initiatives have focused on reducing crashes, however Vision Zero accepts that crashes are going to happen. People will continue to make mistakes on the road and that’s unlikely to change, but we can change the severity of the crash so that people don’t die or are seriously injured as a result.
Cause and effect
A big factor in someone being seriously injured or killed is the speed of the collision. As such, reducing speed is a good approach - even reducing the collision speed by 5km/h makes a huge difference to the severity of the crash.
Another factor is to make the road a safer, more forgiving environment by putting in guard rails and removing hazards on the roadside. The government is addressing this through the Safe Network Programme, which is prioritising safety improvements on state highways and local road safety projects.
Vision Zero is also about appropriate speeds that are suitable for the type of road and environment.
In a town centre where you have a lot of people walking about, cars parking and turning, you need a lower speed. We know that people who are vulnerable road users – pedestrians, cyclists, scooter users, basically anyone without a protective shield of metal around them – are much safer if they happen to be involved in a crash at 30km/h than at 50km/h.
The good news is that a few engineering and landscaping touches can achieve traffic calming in a way that makes it feel natural to drive at 30km/h or less. Ponsonby is a great example of this, where road humps and chicanes combined with appropriate planting have been used to good effect.
On the other hand, we have motorways that are perfectly safe at 110km/h and speed limits are being changed to reflect this. However, much of our rural road network isn’t safe at 100km/h and this also needs to be reflected in the rollout of a “safe and appropriate speeds’ programme.
Globally WSP has been working on Vision Zero since it was introduced more than 30 years ago and what we know is that humans fail, but design shouldn’t.
System designers are responsible for the design, operation and use of the road transport system and, as such, are responsible for the level of safety within the entire system.
Road users are responsible for following the road transport system rules set by its designers. If users fail to comply with these rules due to a lack of knowledge, acceptance or ability, the system designers are required to take the necessary further steps to counteract people being killed or injured.
We all need to step up
Perhaps because it has always been that way, we take it for granted that deaths and serious injuries are an inevitable price to pay (the road “toll”) for using our roads.
Last year 380 people died and more than 2,000 were seriously injured. Would we accept this approach and level of risk with our drinking water? What if the entire population of a town like Taihape was killed and/or seriously injured by an avoidable event? There would be understandable outrage.
Serious injuries and fatalities cause trauma for a lot of people and impact the whole of society. The effect of less trauma on our roads would be really wide-felt. If we could reduce the number of people per year killed by 50%, like Sweden did, that would save nearly 1,000 lives over the next 5 years. Why wouldn’t we do everything we can to save those 1,000 lives?
It’s time everyone in New Zealand asked themselves how many deaths we are prepared to accept. If we all agree that it’s zero then we all have a shared responsibility to create a safer system out there
Fergus Tate is widely acknowledged to be a leading expert in road safety in New Zealand, having spent over seven years with the NZ Transport Agency where he was the Lead Safety Advisor for Roads and Roadsides and previously the National Manager Traffic and Safety. As Technical Director – Transport at WSP Opus, Fergus provides expertise to clients to help them bring complex projects to life.