The Swedish Approach to Road Safety: 'The Accident Is Not the Major Problem'

Sweden's top traffic safety strategist visits New York to share lessons from the original "Vision Zero."

Image connel / Shutterstock.com
connel / Shutterstock.com

Matts-Åke Belin has a job title that might sound a little foreign to an American ear, but one that’s very important in his home country of Sweden: traffic safety strategist. He holds that position with the Swedish Transport Administration, where he has been one of the key architects of the policy known as Vision Zero. Since approved by the Swedish parliament in October 1997, Vision Zero has permeated the nation’s approach to transportation, dictating that the government manage the nation’s streets and roads with the ultimate goal of preventing fatalities and serious injuries.

It’s a radical vision that has made Sweden an international leader in the area of road safety. When Vision Zero first launched, Sweden recorded seven traffic fatalities per 100,000 people; today, despite a significant increase in traffic volume, that number is fewer than three. To compare, the number of road fatalities in the United States is 11.6 per 100,000.

Recently Belin was in New York to speak at a Vision Zero symposium organized by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. New York City, under the Bill de Blasio administration, has adopted a policy it calls Vision Zero, although it is not strictly adherent to the Swedish approach. I sat down with Belin to discuss cultural differences between Sweden and the United States, the inevitability of human error on the street, the responsibility of the road engineer for safety, and the loneliness of the New York pedestrian. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What were the main barriers that had to be overcome in initially adopting Sweden's Vision Zero strategy?

I would say that the main problems that we had in the beginning were not really political, they were more on the expert side. The largest resistance we got to the idea about Vision Zero was from those political economists that have built their whole career on cost-benefit analysis. For them it is very difficult to buy into “zero.” Because in their economic models, you have costs and benefits, and although they might not say it explicitly, the idea is that there is an optimum number of fatalities. A price that you have to pay for transport.

The problem is the whole transport sector is quite influenced by the whole utilitarianist mindset. Now we’re bringing in the idea that it’s not acceptable to be killed or seriously injured when you’re transporting. It’s more a civil-rights thing that you bring into the policy.

The other group that had trouble with Vision Zero was our friends, our expert friends. Because most of the people in the safety community had invested in the idea that safety work is about changing human behavior. Vision Zero says instead that people make mistakes, they have a certain tolerance for external violence, let’s create a system for the humans instead of trying to adjust the humans to the system.

How much does the acceptance of Vision Zero have to do with the Swedish culture?

Of course, Sweden has a long tradition of working with safety. So Vision Zero is also based on a historical context. If you take Volvo for example — by the way, they have also adopted Vision Zero — they always had safety as one of their core values. So somehow it seems to be in our whole society.

In many other nations, that’s not the case.

There’s a kind of paradox. I lived in Melbourne, Australia, in 2006. I remember I went to the library there, and I found a book that an American author had written about Sweden. And that guy, he was a little bit frustrated. He saw all these systems that we have in our society, for example when it comes to health care and social security and so on, it seems he was against these. There was some sense that if you take care too much about people in your society they will be a little bit spoiled, or whatever. That you have to fight.

On the other hand, Sweden has some of the most important companies in the world. They are doing lots of things in the world. Ericsson and Volvo—there are plenty of companies, actually. It’s a small country and we are out there. He came to the conclusion that it seems the social security system and that sort of thing actually creates risk-takers. Because you know that if something happens and you make mistakes in business or whatever, you will at least have food on your table.

We have that somehow built into living in our society.

And how does that play out in the transportation realm?

If we can create a system where people are safe, why shouldn’t we? Why should we put the whole responsibility on the individual road user, when we know they will talk on their phones, they will do lots of things that we might not be happy about? So let’s try to build a more human-friendly system instead. And we have the knowledge to do that.

But to do that we need to have those who build this to actually accept this philosophy. Even in our country context, it still has been a struggle to get our road engineers to understand that they are responsible, it starts with them. Then the individual road user also has a responsibility. But if something goes wrong it goes back to the designer of the system.

What are some of the most successful road safety measures you’ve implemented in Sweden?

In a traditional approach, the problem you’re trying to solve is the problem with accidents. And when you make in-depth studies you will see that human factor is involved in 90 percent. So you focus very much on how you can prevent accidents from occurring, how can you change behavior and that sort of thing.

But in Vision Zero, the accident is not the major problem. The problem is that people get killed or seriously injured. And the reason that people get serious injuries is mainly because people have a certain threshold where we can tolerate external violence, kinetic energy. And we know quite well now how much violence we can tolerate.

One of the major things with Vision Zero now is to put that more explicitly on the table. It’s like if we’re talking about the environment, and you know you have a certain threshold when it comes to poison, or whatever. You can tolerate up to a certain level. So it’s not just to stop the traffic. You can actually allow traffic. But if you have places in your system where you have unprotected road users and protected road users, according to Vision Zero you can’t allow a higher speed than 30 kilometers per hour [18.6 mph].

Because if you have, as we did in Sweden before, 50 kph [31 mph] as the default speed in an urban area — if you get hit by a car at 50 the risk for a fatal accident is more than 80 percent. But it is less than 10 percent when you have 30 kilometers per hour.

Clearly we have seen it is not enough to, for example, change the speed limit. You maybe have to put in speed bumps. You have to think through all the conflict spots that you have in your traffic system. And do things about it.

The same in intersections. It’s become very popular now to use roundabouts. Because these are much better from a safety point of view, because you reduce the speed with this kind of solution. So the philosophy and the scientific base for it has started to have an impact on the way we solve safety problems in the society.

It’s the same when I think about New York City, for example. The whole signal system here for pedestrians — where you allow the driver to make a turn at the same time you have a green light for a pedestrian — you have put the whole safety prevention or risk reduction on these two people. And if someone makes a mistake, actually, then you are creating a problem for these road users. If you want to support them, maybe you need to give priority to the pedestrian, and the car has to wait, and then you have a green arrow.

That’s a problem we see a lot in New York. Most pedestrians who die are killed in the crosswalk, when they have the light, by turning vehicles not yielding to them. There was a terrible case of this a year ago, a three-year-old girl named Allison Liao walking with her grandmother, who was hit and killed and the driver ended up not even getting a traffic ticket.

So that’s a good example of a problem, then. How to solve that problem? You can go in a way that you maybe increase the sanctions and that sort of thing – then at least someone has to take responsibility.

I would say that Vision Zero would look beyond that. Would see that this is a catastrophe, a human catastrophe for everyone in that situation, even for the guy who killed that girl. What could we do from an evidence-based perspective to make sure that this kind of mistake could not end up in this catastrophe?

Because these mistakes will happen all the time. In our societies now, we are so dependent on road transport, we need to allow almost everyone to use this technology. That brings it back to those of us who design the system: We need to design a system that supports these people so you don’t have this catastrophe.

One way to support it is to have the right speed. So if something happens it will not end up in fatalities and serious injuries.

It’s not always enough to say, the speed limit is now 30 kph. As you say, design plays a huge role, yes. But what about education and enforcement?

I will say that enforcement plays of course a role in Sweden, but not so much. We are going much more for engineering than enforcement. If you have a very dedicated police staff and they think it’s the most important thing, then you can be quite effective working with police. But I don’t think you will get a safe system. You will reduce risk, but you will not achieve a safe system.

What about camera enforcement?

We are doing it, but in a different way. First of all, it is a national policy. We have both rural and urban areas, and we work with both. And when it comes to safety cameras, which is what we call them, we have put them on most rural roads. We have one of the largest safety camera systems in the world, per population.

But they are not catching people — it’s nudging people. So we put up the cameras on a stretch, and we tell everyone, OK, 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.

And we have increased the compliance on these roads from 50 to more than 80 or 90 percent. And we don’t catch any people at all. We reduce the speed, but we don’t catch people. And 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. So we nudge people to do the right thing.

It seems that overall the system you’re describing is a much more compassionate system in general, in which the government and the people who use the roads are partners in trying to make a safe place. So when you go around the streets of New York, what do you think?

I must say that I feel very… alone, you know? There’s no one taking care of me. Because I am here as a pedestrian. And when I try to cross the street, it feels a little bit insecure. It feels a little bit that OK, I have to take care of my safety as much as I can.

Do you think the people you’ve met in New York understand what is necessary to achieve Vision Zero?

I’m not sure. That’s why it’s so important for me to give the full picture. That it’s not just the ethical standpoint, but it brings so many other things with it. And it’s different from the way we traditionally work with safety in several dimensions. For me it’s important to get this message through. Because that’s what I think will actually get us to a safe system.

There’s a large potential in this. It’s not just about safety, it’s about a livable city in general. To be able to have your kids go to and from school by themselves would be a fantastic thing.

To be a senior in this environment must be a nightmare. When you get this red hand, and they start counting down, and it’s very short of time, it’s not friendly from a human perspective. But to go from there to blame the users of cars, we don’t want to do that either. Because we want something good for them also.

So it’s not a war between unprotected road user and protected road user. Here we need to have a more holistic perspective. Where we need cars because they are good for society, we should use them. But in places where we don’t need them, we shouldn’t use them as much as we do.

Now it feels like I put Sweden and the whole idea on a pedestal and that it’s all fantastic. [Laughs] Of course, that’s not the case. We also struggle in our society, to get it. But maybe it’s a different scale.

Top image: connel / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.