The most effective way to prevent traffic deaths is a systemic approach that shifts responsibility away from the drivers and pedestrians using roads to the city planners and officials designing them, according to new research from WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities and the Global Road Safety Facility of the World Bank.

Vision Zero and similar policies known in the transport community as the “Safe System” approach start from the premise that human error is inevitable but traffic fatalities and serious injuries are not. WRI analyzed data from 53 countries and found those with a Safe System approach achieved both the lowest rates of traffic deaths and the largest reductions in fatalities over 20 years. If all countries adopted a Safe System approach, nearly a million lives could be saved per year, according to the report.

“We can dramatically reduce and eventually eliminate road crash fatalities if we follow a Safe System approach,” said Soames Job, Head of the World Bank’s Global Road Safety Facility and one of the report’s co-authors. “Vision Zero is becoming a popular policy to embrace, but what it really means is committing to zero deaths and building in safeguards such as reducing speeds in cities to levels which are safe for pedestrians, replacing intersections with roundabouts, and placing median separation on highways to prevent head-on crashes. By designing transport systems for inevitable human error and placing a greater responsibility on officials, road designers and decision-makers, we can profoundly reduce road crash fatalities.”

Countries like Sweden and the Netherlands began a Safe System approach over 20 years ago and have lowered their traffic fatalities to between three and four deaths per 100,000 residents, a decrease of more than 50%. This has been achieved by building roads that prioritize safety for pedestrians and cyclists rather than car speeds. The global average is 16.4 fatalities per 100,000 residents and 24.1 deaths per 100,000 people in low-income countries.

The report, “Safe and Sustainable: A Vision and Guidance for Zero Road Deaths”, emphasizes the importance of committing to zero deaths, upholding Safe System principles around shared responsibility and reducing human error, and instituting structural fixes like better sidewalks, bike lanes, high quality public transport, safer vehicles, and faster emergency response.

While the Safe System approach has mostly been applied in high-income countries, it is already starting to work in some low- and middle-income cities like Mexico City and Bogota, Colombia.

“Society should not sacrifice health and well-being for other benefits, such as traffic flow or budget savings,” said Claudia Adriazola-Steil , Director of Health and Road Safety, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “Unsafe streets share many characteristics: they lack sidewalks and accessible crossings for pedestrians, they allow unsafe speeds and don’t protect cyclists. The mobility system should create a forgiving environment that minimizes the possibility of crashes, particularly in low- and middle-income countries where 90% of traffic deaths occur.”

Read the full report at: