Can Vision Zero improve road safety?

In 2018 an estimated 1,143 people died on Australian roads — the lowest road toll since 1929 (when the population was only one quarter of 2018). What can be done to reduce the road toll even further?

Sweden legislated Vision Zero way back in 1997 – a philosophy of road safety that aims to achive no one will be killed or seriously injured within the road transport system.

Vision Zero provides a vision of a safe road transport system which can be used to guide the selection of strategies and then the setting of goals and targets. Zero deaths are intended as long term target. It is a change from an emphasis on current problems, to being guided by what the optimum state of the road transport system should be.

Traditional road safety philosophy is that the road user is responsible for safety. There are general rules that the road user should behave so that crashes are avoided. If a crash does occur, at least one road user has, by definition, broken a general rule and the legal system can therefore act.

In contrast, Vision Zero explicitly states that the responsibility is shared by the system designers and the road user:

  • road users are responsible for following the rules for using the road transport system set by the system designers
  • designers of the system are responsible for the level of safety as provided by the design, operation and use of the road transport system – so are required to take necessary steps to counteract people being killed or seriously injured.

Vision Zero states that the loss of human life and health is unacceptable and therefore the road transport system should be designed in a way that such events do not occur.

This means that safety is as (or more) important as any other issue in the road transport system. Mobility, therefore, cannot be obtained at the expense of safety.

For example, in Vision Zero, speed is often used as an operational definition of mobility. Thus, Vision Zero states that speed must be limited to a level commensurate with the inherent safety of the road system. The safer the roads and vehicles, the higher the speed that can be used.

This is a true paradigm shift and contrasts to the more general principle, where human life, mobility and other benefits and problems are weighted against each other.

A first step would be to ‘audit’ current infrastructure in terms of safety. This will highlight where it is most effective, for example, to either reduce speed or modify the infrastructure.

Best practice long term maximum travel speeds related to the infrastructure, given best practice in vehicle design and 100% restraint use may be:

  • Locations with possible conflicts between pedestrians and cars – safe speed: 30km/h
  • Intersections with possible side impacts between cars – safe speed: 50km/h
  • Roads with possible frontal impacts between cars – safe speed: 70km/h
  • Roads with no possibility of a side impact or frontal impact – safe speed: 100+km/h

Vision Zero is a long-term strategy in which the system and its use are gradually integrated and where the responsibility for safety gradually becomes shared by the designer and the user of the system.

For further information see: Vision Zero

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