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4.5 Safe System – Recognising Shared Responsibility

The Safe System approach places requirements on the road safety management system. These requirements include:

  • recognition and acceptance of the concept of shared responsibility;
  • recognition and acceptance of the role of “system providers or designers”;
  • alignment of the Safe System with other policies (e.g. public and occupational health, environment, poverty reduction, mobility and accessibility, etc.), WHO (2004).

Concept of Shared Responsibility

The system will ultimately need to protect all road users, including those who act illegally, from death and serious injury. In the interim period the focus should be on protecting those who do not act illegally and those who could be killed or seriously injured by the illegal actions or errors of other road users.

As noted above, as well as road user behaviour, road- and vehicle-related safety factors play a substantial part in fatal injury crashes. Progressive movement towards a Safe System requires all key stakeholders to accept their responsibilities to provide for safe overall operation of the network. This is in addition to the responsibilities that individual road users bear. This concept of ‘shared responsibility’ is at the core of the shift in traditional thinking about road crash contributing factors that a Safe System requires.

The Safe System approach looks to infrastructure design, speed limits and vehicle safety features that individually (and together) minimise violent crash forces. It relies upon adequate education, legislation and enforcement efforts to gain high levels of road user compliance with road rules; effective licensing regimes to control the safety of drivers using the system (particularly novice drivers and riders); and the cancellation of licences when serious offences are committed. A good standard of emergency post-crash care is also needed.

This fundamental shift away from a “blame the road user” focus, to an approach that compels system providers or designers to provide an intrinsically safe traffic environment, is recognised as the key to achieving ambitious road safety outcomes (OECD, 2016).

The Role of System Providers

While individual road users are expected to be alert and to comply with all road rules, the ‘system providers’ — including the government and industry organisations that design, build, maintain and regulate roads and vehicles — have a primary responsibility to provide a safe operating environment for road users (See Box 4.1). This requires recognition of the many other system providers (beyond the road engineers and vehicle suppliers) who impact on use of the network and who also carry a major responsibility for supporting achievement of safer, survivable outcomes.

Box 4.1: System providers include

  • legislators/regulators/enforcement agencies who are expected to identify unsafe but currently legal behaviours and who implement new compliance measures to create a safer operating system;
  • employers providing vehicles (both light passenger and heavy commercial) for use by their staff and requiring a range of driving tasks as part of employment contracts;
  • agencies providing crash site and hospital emergency medical care;
  • driver and rider licensing authorities seeking to improve the safety of drivers when licensed;
  • road safety agencies;
  • land use planning decision-makers whose decisions affect traffic flows and roadside access;
  • road users, where compliance with road rules is to be sought.


The studies noted in Crash Causes confirm the fundamental importance of those responsible for delivering safer roads and roadsides, safer travel speeds and safer vehicles, as well as safer behaviours. Road users should not have to operate in a system full of flawed designs that increase the probability of error. Sweden’s Vision Zero “envisages a chain of responsibility that both begins and ends with the system designers (i.e. providers)”. The responsibility chain (Tingvall, 2005) has three steps:

  • The system designers (providers) are responsible for the safety of the system.
  • The users have the responsibility to follow rules and regulations.
  • If the road users fail to follow the rules and regulations, the responsibility falls back on the providers of the system.

Many challenges are involved in monitoring ongoing performance of the responsibilities of system providers or system designers. They need to accept accountability for their outputs.

While the principle of shared responsibility has been naturally accepted in the road safety strategies of those countries who have adopted the Safe System approach, the necessary substantial (and often subtle) adjustment required to become accepted operating practice will take some time to achieve across agencies (including road authorities).

Road safety responsibilities also extend to the broader community. For example, health professionals have a role in helping their clients to manage their safety on the roads; and parents contribute significantly to the road safety education of their children — not only through their direct supervision of learner drivers, but also as role models through their own driving and road user behaviour. The Danish Road Safety Accident Investigation Board case study provides an example of shared responsibility. 

CASE STUDY - Denmark: Danish Road Safety Accident Investigation Board

Road safety is in Denmark seen as a shared responsibility. The Danish Road Traffic Accident Investigation Board (AIB) is one of the important players in the continued efforts to prevent road accidents and minimize their implications. The AIB´s main purpose is to come up with new knowledge and make recommendations for proposed actions to be implemented. The AIB consists of a multi-disciplinary group that makes in-depth analyses of frequent and serious accident types to create a more accurate picture of the factors contributing to accidents and recurring problems. Read more (PDF, 391 kb).

Alignment of Safe System with other Policies and Societal Goals

Road Safety decisions should not be made in isolation but should be aligned with broader community values, such as economic; land use planning; human, occupational and environmental health; consumer goals; and mobility and accessibility as outlined in Scope of the Road Safety Problem. There is strong alignment between the Safe System and these goals. The following two case studies show how alignment of policies can be beneficial to safety.

CASE STUDY - Denmark: Road standards: United Solutions implemented voluntarily

The update of the road standards on road safety issues concern the main road safety documents for e.g. good road safety practice, and guidelines/instructions for how to do road safety audits and inspections. It is also for ensuring and giving feedback to the other groups if there are overlap between the groups and their material and to make sure the wording and recommendations are the same. Skilled professionals and experts from across the road sector are behind the drafting of the road standards. There are contributors from the government agencies including road administrations, police, transport authorities, municipalities, but also ngo’s like biking organisations, unions, universities and private companies or the industry with interest in the sector. Read more (PDF, 385 kb).


CASE STUDY - Denmark: Interplay between public authority, individuals and society in Denmark

Danish road safety is influenced by many players, ranging from public authorities and interest groups to the media. This is a strength, and provides for public acceptance of measures and a lively debate on how to improve road safety for all. Together with road users’ own personal responsibility to act responsibly and carefully on the roads, a strong sense of community can bring down the accident figures and create safer transport. Read more (PDF, 429 kb).
Reference sources

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