From the three-point seatbelt to pacemakers, Sweden has a long track record of innovations to improve safety.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the country has also applied this innovative approach to develop one of the world’s best road safety records. In fact, it has pioneered a new approach to road safety that, instead of focusing on preventing all accidents, says that no accident should lead to a death or serious injury.
First introduced back in 1997, this so-called ‘Vision Zero’ concept works on the basis that people make mistakes, but that those human errors made on the road should not have such severe consequences.
Maria Krafft, head of traffic safety at the Swedish Transport Administration, explained in a recent interview: “People will always make mistakes. You can’t count on that never happening… but just like at a nuclear power plant, human errors on the roads need not have devastating consequences and so we focus on building systems that counteract such consequences.”
Initially, this focused on measures including investments in the most dangerous roads, efforts to make roads safer in towns and cities, and new vehicle safety laws, including fitting winter tyres.
Over time, different solutions have been used in order to preserve the level of safety within the system. They’re a mixture of old and new: from the widespread adoption of 2+1 roads - where each lane of traffic takes turns to use a middle lane for overtaking - to Intelligent Speed Assistance systems in cars (which alert drivers to changes in the speed limit and reduce their speed accordingly) and alcolocks to prevent people who are under the influence of alcohol from starting their vehicles.
And it’s working. Since the year 2000, the number of people killed in traffic in Sweden has fallen by half.
Inspired by Vision Zero
The Swedish initiative has inspired technological innovations in the car industry, too, where several brands are working towards zero fatalities. In 2008, Swedish carmaker Volvo announced its aim for nobody to be seriously injured or killed in any of their new cars.
Vision Zero policies for road traffic safety have been introduced in other countries, such as Norway, Denmark, and the USA. In the UK, there have been considerable improvements to road safety, although some roads are much riskier than others, as shown in our Dangerous Roads Map.
Back in Sweden, the Vision Zero concept spread to other safety-related areas, such as fire safety, patient safety and workplace accidents.
But, as with other countries that have relatively strong road safety statistics – such as the UK, among others – there is still much to be done in Sweden to make the roads safer, and the work of Vision Zero isn’t done yet.