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The Safe System

Adopting the Safe System

In order to produce positive road safety outcomes, strong management in all aspects of road safety is required. 

Systems for the management of road safety have evolved over the last few decades in developed countries. Today, the Safe System approach is seen as the most appropriate approach in guiding the management of road safety. 

RoadSafe champions the adoption of a Safe System approach, which represents a fundamental shift in road safety policy, as its ultimate goal is to prevent any road user being subject to impacts sufficient to cause fatal or serious injury when inevitable errors of judgement result in crashes. 

Modern cars are built with this concept central to their design - unlike the driver or other occupants, and provided that they are driven within the limits of the environment (road, weather, traffic conditions etc...), they are designed to withstand a crash!

The basic strategy of a Safe System approach is to ensure that in the event of a crash, the impact energies remain below the threshold likely to produce either death or serious injury. It sees the road user as the weakest link in the transport chain, unpredictable and capable of error, education and information efforts notwithstanding. This approach forms the basis of Sweden's Safe System.

Although this is a very long term objective, it transforms the level of ambition. The safe system approach opens up new potential for improving performance by addressing all elements of the road transport system together and finding synergies for trauma reduction when safer road and vehicle design, speed limits and compliance with road rules, are pursued in concert. 

The Safe System approach recognises that humans as road users are fallible and will make mistakes. There are also limits to the kinetic energy exchange which humans can tolerate (e.g. during the rapid deceleration associated with a crash) before serious injury or death occurs. A key part of the Safe System approach requires that the road system be designed to take account of these errors and vulnerabilities so that road users are able to avoid serious injury or death on the road.

As explained in the PIARC manual focus on key crash types occurring on a network helps to identify the role and intervention options for each Safe System element. The emphasis is on reducing fatalities and serious injuries rather than the number of overall crashes.

There has been a growing understanding of this approach and now the International Transport Forum and the OECD has released a new report: Zero Road Deaths and Serious Injuries Leading a Paradigm Shift to a Safe System which describes a paradigm shift in road safety policy, being led by a handful of countries, according to the principles of a Safe System.

Central to this approach is understanding the evidence that 30% of serious crashes are caused by deliberate violations and risk-taking behaviour, while the majority result from simple errors of perception or judgement by otherwise compliant persons. An approach that humans can be faultless road users is flawed and at odds with safety management in other transport modes such as aviation or shipping or rail, where behaviour is encouraged and guided through system design.

Characteristics

Four guiding principles are central to a safe system:

  • First, people make mistakes that can lead to road crashes.
  • Second, the human body has a known, limited physical ability to tolerate crash forces before harm occurs.
  • Third, while individuals have a responsibility to act with care and within traffic laws, a shared responsibility exists with those who design, build, manage and use roads and vehicles to prevent crashes resulting in serious injury or death and to provide post-crash care.
  • Fourth, all parts of the system must be strengthened in combination to multiply their effects, and road users are still protected if one part fails. 

This represents a fundamental shift in thinking how we try to address road safety. For many crashes there is likely to be some form of road improvement that could be made to reduce the likelihood of a fatal or serious injury crash occurring. However, in a Safe System approach, road safety problems are typically treated by considering the interaction of several components of the transport system, rather than by implementing individual countermeasures in relative isolation. This means that the full range of solutions, infrastructure, traffic and speed management, vehicle standards and equipment and road user behaviour need to be addressed. 

Ambitious targets are a powerful stimulus in developing new approaches to prevent loss of life and serious injury on the roads. The report also promotes a ‘Safe System’ approach to casualty reduction.

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