A revolutionary way of thinking about traffic safety has helped Sweden significantly reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries on its roads. Ten years after it was introduced, the Vision Zero policy is being copied in countries around the world.
Sweden’s high level of road safety awareness has reduced the number of traffic fatalities in the country. Photo: Emma Nilsson
About 1.4 million people die each year in traffic accidents globally, making it the ninth most common cause of death. Although Sweden is one of the countries where you are least likely to die in a car crash, the new way of thinking means that even Sweden’s low fatality figures are now seen as unacceptable.
Zero tolerance for crashes
The basic idea behind the Vision Zero policy is this: serious injuries and deaths on the road should not be tolerated. Until recently, crashes and fatalities on the roads were seen as a necessary evil to be accepted in the interests of personal mobility.
Sweden has always been at the forefront of road safety – it was one of the first countries to require seatbelts for both front and rear passengers – but the results have still been astonishing. Central safety barriers have reduced head-on smashes by 80 percent, lowering speed limits in urban areas has reduced injuries to cyclists and pedestrians by 50 percent, and a new law requiring children under the age of 15 to wear helmets is expected to reduce this figure even further.
From 1997 to 2006 fatalities on Swedish roads were reduced from 541 to 431, but 2000 was a black year with 591 dead. Source: Vägverket/OECD
Accidents will happen
Claes Tingvall, director of traffic safety at the Swedish Road Administration (Vägverket), is known as the father of Vision Zero. “We in the transport sector have not intentionally killed people, but safety has not been the main concern,” he says.
Key to Vision Zero is the radical notion of moving responsibility for accidents away from road users and on to those who design the road transport system. “A couple of hundred years ago it was said that people got diseases because they were immoral and they weren’t living according to God’s will, and it’s still more or less the same with crashes,” says Tingvall. “We have come to understand that bacteria and viruses make us ill. But crashes and injuries are still very much blamed on the victim for being stupid or irresponsible.”
Claes Tingvall has made a name for himself as the architect of the Swedish Vision Zero policy. Photo: Hasse Eriksson
Vision Zero accepts that accidents will happen, so the best course of action is to try to minimize the effects: traffic is slowed, intersections are redesigned, guard rails put up, and rigid roadside objects like trees and rocks are removed.
Safety through technology
Sweden’s car industry has also played a key role in reducing accidents. The country’s two main carmakers, Volvo and Saab, have a top reputation for safety. Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin patented the three-point seatbelt in 1958, and Volvo was the first car manufacturer in the world to fit them as standard the following year. Ingrid Skogsmo, director of Volvo Cars’ Safety Center, says: “Reducing the number of fatalities requires a mixture of people, vehicles and infrastructure, so we aim to provide the safe vehicles.”
Skogmo’s team in Göteborg is working on a range of advanced technologies to prevent accidents. One such is automatic braking. “In our Volvo S80 you have collision warning with brake support,” says Skogsmo. “A radar in the grill of the car monitors the distance to the car in front of you. If you get too close there is an audio signal and a light flashed up onto the windscreen. At the same time we move the brake pads to the wheels so that once you react no time is lost.”
Half asleep behind the wheel? Swedish Volvo has engineered an optical radar system to help drivers avoid collisions at low speeds. Illustration: Volvo
Other technologies under development in Swedish labs include highly sensitive built-in alcohol sensors, night vision systems similar to those used by the military and adaptive cruise control to maintain a safe distance between vehicles.
Tingvall says the international response to Vision Zero has been “almost hysterical.” “The interest has been enormous. We're trying to have an interaction both with countries that have very good traffic safety but also with others, like China, that really have a problem now with a growing economy and increased motorization.”
Professor John Whitelegg, transport expert at the Stockholm Environment Institute at York University in England, is pushing to get a similar policy introduced in the UK. He believes that were he to succeed – although he’s not confident he will – road fatalities there could be reduced from about 3,000 today to close to zero in 20 to 25 years.
Many countries have a long way to go to reach Sweden's low fatality figures. Source: Vägverket/OECD
“When Vision Zero was unveiled, no one even entertained the idea that it was possible to think in terms of reducing the number of fatalities and serious injuries to something that was tiny or zero,” Whitelegg says. “But it’s a remarkable achievement for Sweden and it’s still reverberating around the world.”
While the Vision Zero policy may not be taken up in the UK, it has been embraced from Norway to Australia, and the Swedish national obsession with safety is now saving lives around the world.
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David Wiles is the editor of Sweden Today magazine. He’s happy to own a Swedish-made car bristling with Swedish-engineered safety systems. A device to help him keep his distance from the car in front would be appreciated by his wife.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
© Photo 1: Emma Nilsson
© Photo 2: Hasse Eriksson
© Illustration: Volvo
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