Why Sweden Has the World's Safest Roads

Sweden has rebuilt roads to prioritize safety over speed.

Image Mr Thinktank / Flickr
What safe roads look like. (Mr Thinktank / Flickr)

Sweden is on its way to reaching zero road deaths per year. It’s an incredible feat, coming from a peak in road deaths in the 1970s. In 1997, Sweden implemented its now-famed “Vision Zero” plan in hopes of eradicating all road deaths and injuries, and it has already cut the deaths by half since 2000. In 2012, just one child under seven years old was killed on a road, compared with 58 in 1970.

The Economist earlier this year took a look at the data: the number of cars on the road and the distance driven have doubled since the 70s, yet just 264 people died in road crashes in Sweden last year, a record low. That represents just three deaths per 100,000 people, and compares to 5.5 in the European Union and 11.4 in the US. (See this European Commission report for additional data.)

How has Sweden done it? “We are going much more for engineering than enforcement,” Matts-Åke Belin, a government traffic safety strategist, told CityLab recently.

Sweden has rebuilt roads to prioritize safety over speed and other considerations. This includes the creation of “2 + 1″ roads, three-lane streets consisting of two lanes in one direction and one lane in the other; the extra lane alternates between directions to allow for passing. That design saved roughly 145 lives during the first 10 years of Vision Zero, according to the Economist.

Sweden has also created 12,600 safer pedestrian crossings with features such as bridges, flashing lights, and speed bumps. That’s estimated to have halved pedestrian deaths over the past five years. The country has lowered speed limits in urban, crowded areas and built barriers to protect bikers from incoming traffic. A crackdown on drunk driving has also helped.

Others are studying the Swedish model. New York has also adopted a Vision Zero plan, which includes the implementation of slow zones and increased police enforcement of speeding laws. As a result, it’s never been safer to cross a street in New York City. Just 131 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents this year, a record low.

Is it possible to get road deaths even closer to zero than Sweden has? Many experts are betting that driverless cars are the answer to that.

Top image: Mr Thinktank via Flickr Creative Commons.

This post originally appeared on Quartz, an Atlantic partner site.

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