Re-evaluating Road collisions: Almost 30 years ago, a revolutionary idea changed the way Europe regarded road collisions. It has probably saved countless lives, but it’s yet to be fully accepted by politicians.

       In 1995, a serious crash occurred on the E4 motorway near Stockholm, Sweden. Five young people were travelling in a hatchback car when the vehicle went into a roll near the exit ramp for the Ikea store. The car smashed into a concrete structure supporting a streetlight by the side of the road, and all five passengers were killed. (More than 500 people died on Sweden’s roads that year.)

       Today, Sweden has some of the lowest rates of road traffic fatalities in the world, and the story of how the country has strived to bring that number to zero provides a lesson for other countries where the death toll has remained stubbornly high.

       In the 1990s, the road safety world was focused on technological measures such as seatbelts, car seats for children and airbags. These measures softened the impact of what is sometimes called “the second collision” in car crashes – the impact of passengers within a vehicle, moments after a crash has occurred.

       In 1995, Claes Tingvall had become the head of road safety for the Swedish Road Administration. Tingvall knew that this focus didn’t go far enough. He saw that injuries were a result of combining a speeding mass with solid structures as well as the many other variables, including road conditions and the driver’s behaviour, as well as the safety features on the vehicle. He has been fighting for improvements in road and vehicle design to cut the number of fatalities in crashes for nearly three decades.

       After the crash near Stockholm, Tingvall called the regional director of the transport authority. He asked the official what he planned to do following the incident. The official said they would swiftly replace the concrete lamppost. Tingvall demanded that all such supports be removed, since they were clearly a hazardous feature to have right next to a road. Work began to improve Sweden’s “clear zones” next to roads, but it caused disquiet among officials. Wasn’t changing the road layout tantamount to admitting liability for the crash?

       Tingvall did indeed believe that the authorities were responsible – not for reckless driving, or for the crash itself – but for the fact that the incident was as fatal as it was. Globally, he estimates that at least 100 million people have died on the roads since the birth of the motor car

       The real moment of change, he believes, came some months before the crash south of Stockholm, when a conversation took place in his office. It was during a visit from Ines Uusmann, the minister for infrastructure, and Tingvall’s political boss. At one point she turned to him and asked, simply: “How many deaths should we have as our long-term target in Sweden?” Tingvall replied: “Zero.” To his surprise, Uusmann said she was interested and would like to hear more. This was the beginning of an approach to road safety known as “Vision Zero”.

       On 22 May 1997, the Swedish government presented Bill 1996/97:137 to parliament. It cemented zero deaths as a long-term goal for road fatalities. It reiterated that transport designers were responsible for maintaining the road system, while drivers were expected to drive responsibly and follow the rules. However, a further clause stated that: “If the road users do not adequately assume their share of the responsibility, for example, due to a lack of knowledge or skill, or if personal injuries occur or risk occurring for other reasons, the system designers must take additional further measures to prevent people being killed or seriously injured.” This meant that officials were no longer allowed to design roads for idealised drivers who never became distracted or exceeded the speed limit. They had to make roads for real people who made mistakes.

       This effort to focus on the deadliest types of crashes led Tingvall to borrow the roundabout – also known in the US as a rotary – from the UK. They are now a common sight in Scandinavia. Collisions are more common on roundabouts than intersections, but they are much less deadly, because cars move slowly and in the same general direction.

       Tingvall took Vision Zero to Australia in 1998, where it was renamed the “safe system” approach. In 2002, it was formally adopted by Sweden’s neighbour Norway, while at the municipal level Vision Zero has been implemented in dozens of cities around the world, from Barcelona to Bogota. In 2011 it was adopted as part of the EU’s road safety strategy. In the following decade, deaths on European roads fell by about one third, while in the U.S. deaths went up, even when accounting for changes in population size.

       In February 2020, Sweden hosted a High-Level Conference on Global Road Safety for the United Nations. A group of Swedish experts, chaired by Tingvall, put together a set of recommendations and targets that would go on to enshrine Vision Zero in road safety policy for the UN, WHO and OECD. The so-called Stockholm Declaration was agreed by around 140 members and was seen as an equivalent – for road safety – of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. It kickstarted the UN and WHO’s Second Decade for Action for Road Safety, which aims to cut road deaths and injuries by half globally by 2030. That would be impressive – but what about zero? Will Sweden ever have a year when no-one is killed or seriously injured as Tingvall envisioned?

       “Not in my lifetime,” says Tingvall. “But I’m pretty old. Around 2050, maybe.”

       Tingvall also expresses regret that speed limits are still subject to political and public debate, rather than being set by experts who understand the risk that different road systems pose to the human body. “No one would dream of letting the Parliament set the speed limits for trains, or maximum load weights for bridges, since they are technical limits,” he wrote in 2022. “Regardless of how hard it may sound, democracy does not stand above physical laws.”

       “Of course, you need courage – a lot of courage,” says Tingvall. “The courage for someone in public authority to say, ‘This is where I draw the line between listening to politics and listening to science – and also human rights.'”

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    I recall a market visit 30 plus years ago by a Company Director where the local technical head presented a “target of factory accidents” 50% lower than the previous year. Instead of being impressed, the Director was furious. He insisted that the “target” should be Zero. In following years that was always my position whenever I was presented with “accident” targets.

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