Vision Zero and Sweden’s approach to road safety

Swedish roads with wire rope barriers and lined with snow covered pine trees

The Towards Zero philosophy is new to Victoria as a road safety strategy but it has been in effect in Sweden, the world leader in road safety, for close to two decades now. In Sweden it's known as Vision Zero.

Learn more about how the safer road system will get us Towards Zero in the eLearning Module.

Vision Zero: A new approach to road safety for Sweden

Vision Zero first emerged in Sweden when Claes Tingvall, the then director of road safety at the Swedish Road Administration, proposed Sweden should have the same approach to traffic safety as it did to workplace safety.

Backed by the Minister for Transport, Vision Zero was passed in 1997 as an Act of Parliament calling for an end to deaths and serious injuries on Swedish roads. In Sweden at the time, seven people per 100,000 were killed on the road; in 2015, fewer than three people are killed per 100,000.

This improvement only happened because of a drastic change in thinking about how to manage road safety. "Most of the people in the safety community had invested in the idea that safety work is about changing human behaviour," says Matts-Åke Belin, current traffic safety strategist for the Swedish Transport Administration. "Vision Zero says instead that people make mistakes... let's create a system for the humans instead of trying to adjust the humans to the system."

This shift in thinking changed the focus of efforts and resources, too. "In a traditional approach, the problem you're trying to solve is the problem with accidents," says Belin. "But in Vision Zero, the accident is not the major problem. The problem is that people get killed or seriously injured.

"The reason that people get serious injuries is mainly because people have a certain threshold where we can tolerate external violence… and we know quite well now how much violence we can tolerate."

The reality Tingvall says Sweden began to acknowledge was that "nearly every crash starts with a human act" and "it's usually a mistake or a violation." Once they accepted this, they realised it was unethical to heap the weight of responsibility and blame on people, particularly when the road system was failing all those involved in accidents and it didn't have to. "We need 100% compliance [from people], otherwise the system breaks down," he says.

"The consequences are already in the system design. Every professional should know that you need to bring into your design the failing human. If that is not your starting point when you design something hazardous, then you will fail. There is no example in history of designing something based on the human doing the right thing."

Making Vision Zero a reality

The ethical core of the Vision Zero philosophy is based on protecting human life and health, while also acknowledging human error and fragility; this also underlies the Towards Zero approach. In the same vein, the only acceptable target to reach for, when it comes to the number of people being killed or seriously injured when using the roads, is zero.

"Targets are a key in the management of traffic safety. Improvements don't happen by themselves at random," says Tingvall. "You have to break targets down and make them meaningful. Otherwise, how can a police officer on duty understand his role?"

"Something general like halving the deaths on roads is okay, but it's what happens next that counts. Break this down into components related to safety, seatbelt use, infrastructure, speed control and the like… targets should be challenging but meaningful. If you look at really professional countries, they will have a structure like this."

For Vision Zero, and Towards Zero in Victoria, four areas are being focused on simultaneously: safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds and safer people. Improvements in each of these areas – such as upgrading high risk rural roads, adopting advancing car technology, setting appropriate speeds for road conditions and ensuring people's compliance with road rules – will all contribute to a safer road system and reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries.

A common misconception when rolling out this new approach is the role enforcement and safety cameras play – and the revenue they raise – but as Belin says, it plays a role in Vision Zero "but not so much." Instead he says, "We are going much more for engineering than enforcement."

"We have one of the largest safety camera systems in the world, per population. But they are not catching people – it's nudging people. We put up the cameras on a stretch, and we tell everyone, 'Okay, now you're going in this area,' and in a friendly but firm way we say, 'You have to keep the speed in this area because we have a history of crashes [here].' And we have increased the compliance on these roads from 50 to more than 80 or 90 per cent. We don't catch any people at all.

"We reduce the speed, but we don't catch people. We don't earn any money. It's an investment for us.  We don't want to get that discussion in our society that this is a revenue-raising thing. We want people to understand that this is for safety. We nudge people to do the right thing."

Volvo embrace Vision Zero

Interestingly, support for the Vision Zero viewpoint has been picked up more quickly by the business sector and governments than the public in most areas.

The philosophy has been adopted by manufacturers like Volvo in Sweden who has laid down the bold goal of no one being killed or seriously injured in a Volvo by 2020. The independent International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has also set up a safety standard in traffic management based on the Vision Zero thinking. More broadly, Tingvall says, "Organisations like the OECD have been clear that this is the way to look at it. The WHO has picked it up." You can read World Health Organisation's world report on violence and injury prevention and road safety here.

Support like this is important because, as Tingvall says, "Key to getting [to zero] is the commitment from so many who support Vision Zero and who back it up."

Seeing how far Sweden has come is a real-world demonstration of where we can take road safety. In Victoria, between four and five people per 100,000 die on our roads a year; now with this new approach to road safety we hope to get this number down to zero in the decades to come. The first target the Towards Zero partners have in their sights is to reduce the current number of people killed or seriously injured on Victorian roads by 20 per cent, in other words a further 40 to 50 people saved each year.

Find out more about the Towards Zero approach here.