Road Safety Manual
A manual for practitioners and decision makers
on implementing safe system infrastructure!

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4.1 Introduction

This chapter outlines the Safe System approach from first principles to end delivery of safe outcomes, with cross-referencing to the detailed planning and design activities which give effect to a Safe System approach and are set out in later sections of this manual.

A Safe System approach within the road transport system is built around the premise that death and injury are unacceptable and are avoidable. This approach seeks to ensure that no road user is subject to kinetic energy exchange in a crash which will result in death or serious long-term disabling injury. OECD (2008) endorses the Safe System approach and notes that Safe System principles represent a fundamental shift from traditional road safety thinking, reframing the way in which traffic safety is viewed and managed.

The Safe System represents a major change to past approaches. It overturns the fatalistic view that road traffic injury is the price to be paid for achieving mobility. It sets a goal of eliminating road crash fatalities and serious injuries in the long-term, with interim targets to be set in the years towards road death and serious injury elimination.

This elimination is feasible. It requires system reconfiguration and recognition that the network must eventually be forgiving of routine human (road user) errors. It is important to recognise the fundamental change that road safety agencies, including road authorities, will face in embracing and implementing this Safe System aspiration and in implementing Safe System treatments across their networks (See Responsibilities and Policy for road authority impacts).

The overarching scientific safety principles for a Safe System include recognition that:

  • humans have limitations and are fallible (i.e. they make mistakes);
  • there are known physical limits for energy exchange in crashes, beyond which the human body is seriously injured;
  • a well-designed system can ensure that the physical limits of the human body are not exceeded in a crash;
  • the focus is on the long-term elimination of fatalities and serious injury;
  • there is a shared responsibility for safe travel outcomes between ‘system designers’ (those who influence the level of safety experienced on the road network) and the road user.

A video has been produced by the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) describing the Safe System approach, and the role of different parts of the system. This provides a very useful introduction to this topic (See The Difference Between Life and Death – a 20 minute film).

How do I get started?

A commitment is needed from agencies to review their road safety capacity (see Safety Management System); to develop understanding of the principles of Safe System and its elements; to adopt a long term goal for elimination of fatalities and serious injuries. The key principles of the Safe System (See Safe System Principles) include:

  • shared responsibility: recognising that providers of road infrastructure and traffic management, speed limits, and vehicles have major responsibilities in addition to road user responsibilities (See Safe system Responsibility)
  • accommodating human error by developing a forgiving road system over time which better manages kinetic energy in key crash types to avoid fatal and serious injury outcomes.

Countries must develop their knowledge to address gaps within the agencies (and of other stakeholders) as to what a Safe System approach is and what practical change this will require in management and intervention approaches. Over time all Safe System elements (See Safe System Elements), and the safety of all road users are to be addressed. Funding needs are to be identified and advocated to government.

Understanding of major crash types (See Crash Causes) should be determined from crash data or if not available, by discussions with police and emergency services workers. Develop a reliable crash data system as soon as possible (See Safety Data).

Road assessment programmes can play a part in identifying higher risk sections of a network and in identifying affordable treatments, especially where reliable crash injury data in not available. Weaknesses in Safe System elements (roads and traffic management - including roadside management and abutting development access controls, see Section 7.3; vehicles, speeds; and road user behaviours) which contribute to fatalities and serious injuries in these crash types should be determined.

In the short term, for new road projects, adoption of Safe System design policies which apply Safe System principles to treatments to reduce fatal crash risk will be developed. Design guidelines would follow subsequently but these would be a substantial development task which requires an incremental medium term approach.

Seek to improve user behaviour and compliance (See Safe System Principles) across the whole existing network through improved traffic management guidance, reduced speed limits in high risk areas and improved police enforcement, offence penalties and public education See Targets and Strategic Plans for the recommended demonstration project approach.

In the medium to longer term: Carry out progressive retrofitting of the existing system. Do what is feasible to improve infrastructure safety and further improve behaviour and compliance through licensing system reviews and legislative changes re offences. Continue public education campaigns and seek improved vehicle safety regulation and public education.


Reference sources

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