Road Safety Manual
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2.4 The paradigm shift to Safe System

Progressive shifts in road safety thinking and practice have taken place since the middle of the last century. As outlined briefly in Scope of the Road Safety Problem, Box 1.2, an increasingly ambitious approach has been identified, which has culminated in the Safe System goal of eliminating road crash deaths and serious injuries (Peden et al., 2004; OECD, 2008; GRSF, 2009). This section discusses the evolution of these developments more fully and traces the costly path from a sole focus on the driver to the Safe System approach which encompasses and builds on the best of previous approaches.

‘Blame the victim’ approach

In the 1950s and 1960s, rapid motorisation took place in many OECD countries, accompanied by increasing numbers of road deaths and serious injuries. At that time, dispersed, uncoordinated, and poorly resourced institutional units performing isolated single functions characterised road safety management (Trinca et al., 1988). The emphasis in policy-making was on the driver. Legislative rules and penalties were established, supported by information and publicity, and subsequent changes in behaviour were expected. As experience has shown, it was wrongly believed that since human error contributed most to crash causation, educating and training road users to behave better could address the road safety problem effectively. As noted by the World Health Organization, while these measures provide general support, there is little or no evidence to indicate a casualty reduction effect (Peden et al., 2004). Over-emphasis on the role of individual responsibility and blaming the victim prevents the relevant authorities from fully embracing their responsibilities.

Systems approach to intervention

During the 1970s and 1980s, a systems perspective on interventions was evident. William Haddon, an American epidemiologist, developed a systematic framework for road safety based on a disease model that comprised infrastructure, vehicles and users in pre-crash, in-crash and post-crash stages (Haddon, 1968). Central to this approach was the understanding that the exchange of kinetic energy in a crash leads to injury, which needs to be managed to ensure that the thresholds of human tolerances to injury are not exceeded. This broadened the scope of intervention to highlight the need for system-wide delivery, and underpinned a major shift in road safety practice which took several decades to evolve. However, it did not directly address the institutional management arrangements needed to produce this intervention or target results. (OECD, 2008; GRSF, 2009).

System-wide interventions, targeted results and institutional leadership

By the early 1990s, countries achieving good results had progressed towards implementing action plans with quantitative targets to reduce death and sometimes serious injuries (OECD, 1994, 2008; PIARC, 2012). The reductions achieved in different groupings of EU countries are presented in Figure 2.2.

Figure 2.2 Reduction in deaths for different combinations of EU countries since 1970 - Source: ETSC, (2011).

In many countries, casualty reductions have been achieved through system-wide intervention packages, based on evidence gathered from ongoing monitoring, evaluation and research. Typically, four broad categories of interventions were responsible for the majority of safety gains achieved. These are:

  • general deterrence style enforcement of key road safety behaviours (e.g. speed, alcohol, seatbelts and child restraints, helmets, fatigue)
  • safety engineering of road environments
  • vehicle safety improvements
  • improvements in the emergency medical system and road trauma care.

A large body of literature has been produced on evidence-based intervention used in effective targeted programmes; and a good introduction is the review provided by the World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention (Peden et al., 2004), OECD (2008), and PIARC (2012). Further examples of these are presented in later sections of the manual.

New attention was being given to institutional management and lead agencies. Supporting inter-governmental coordination processes were enhanced; and funding and resource allocation mechanisms and processes were established to assist the achievement of targets (Peden et al., 2004; Koornstra et al., 2002). In New Zealand, enhanced accountability arrangements included targeted hierarchies linking institutional outputs with intermediate and final outcomes. These provided the framework for coordinating and integrating multi-sectoral activity (LTSA, 2000). This evolution laid the foundation for current practice and reflects the institutional arrangements found in many better performing countries today (OECD, 2008; GRSF, 2009; PIARC, 2012).

Safe System goal and strategy and shared responsibility

By the late 1990s, two of the world’s best performing countries had determined that maintaining continuous improvement in performance would require a more ambitious, comprehensive and sustainable approach than had been adopted in previous practice. The Dutch Sustainable Safety and Swedish Vision Zero strategies aimed to make the road system intrinsically safe (Koornstra et al., 1992; Tingvall, 1995; Wegman & Elsenaar, 1997). These have since been developed further in key publications (Tingvall & Haworth, 1999; Wegman & Aerts, 2006).

In both the Sustainable Safety and Vision Zero approaches, new emphasis is given to managing the exchange of kinetic energy in a crash to ensure that the thresholds of human tolerances to injury are not exceeded. Known generically as Safe System, the goal of eventually eliminating serious health loss in road traffic crashes provides an ethical foundation. Road deaths and serious injuries are no longer seen as a necessary price to be paid for improved mobility (Tingvall & Haworth, 1999).

Vision Zero reflects zero tolerance for the traditional trade-off between mobility and road injury.

Source: Swedish Minister Elmsäter-Svärd., Investing in Road Safety: Challenges, Opportunities, and New Partnerships Leipzig, Germany, May 22, 2013.

As discussed later in  Safe System Approach, this approach goes further than traditional approaches that placed the intervention focus on safer vehicles, safer roads and safer users. This newer approach now also addresses the critical interfaces between them. The ‘engineered’ elements of the system, i.e. vehicles and roads, can be designed to be compatible with the human element, recognising that while crashes might occur, the total system can be designed to minimise harm (Tingvall, 1995; Ydenius, 2010). This shared responsibility for better design is a key element of the Safe System approach.

In a sustainably safe road traffic system, infrastructure design inherently and drastically reduces crash risk. Should a crash occur, the process that determines crash severity is conditioned in such a way that severe injury is almost excluded.

Towards sustainably safe road traffic, Koornstra et al., (1992).

In order to achieve a safe transport system, there must be a change in our views concerning responsibility, to the extent that system designers are given clearly defined responsibility for designing the road system on the basis of actual human capabilities, thereby preventing the occurrence of those cases of death and serious injury that are possible to predict and prevent.

Swedish Committee of Inquiry into Road Traffic Responsibility, (1996).

At the same time, the tools and practices used to support the Safe System goal and approach are the same as those used in the past to prepare and implement targeted national plans. Intervention is identified for the short-, medium- and long-term returns. Targets are still set as milestones to be achieved on the path to the ultimate goal, with a new focus on targeted intermediate outcomes that are causally linked to the prevention of death and serious injury (Stigson, 2009). The rationale for this is to provide better information and management opportunity for those with direct responsibility for different aspects of the road network and traffic system safety performance. In LMICs, where crash injury databases may not yet be developed or working effectively, this approach allows for the immediate targeting of intermediate outcomes in multi-sectoral projects and, ultimately, programmes (see further discussion and guidance in  Safe System Approach and Targets and Strategic Plans).

The Safe System approach builds on the best of previous approaches and addresses the issue of how to more comprehensively and rapidly address all elements of the road safety management system where there is potential for improvement. It promotes innovation and the adoption of effective new technologies (see for example Lie, 2012), underpinned by shared responsibility and strengthened, accountable institutional leadership (OECD, 2008).

Safe System is promoted in the Global Plan (UNRSC, 2011a) and by the OECD (2008), the World Bank (GRSF, 2009), ISO (2012), and many other international organisations (UNSRC, 2011b), as best practice to all countries that aim to create and establish capacity for a sustainable road traffic system, irrespective of their current economic status and safety performance.

The rationale for adopting and implementing the Safe System in LMICs is that it directly addresses the needs of vulnerable road users as well as other users. It encourages safety to be designed into developing road networks rather than being considered as an afterthought. This saves future costs that may result from neglecting safety in the planning and design process. Furthermore, the Safe System aligns well with high priority global, regional and country development goals of sustainability, harmonisation and inclusiveness (see Box 2.5 ).

Box 2.5: Relevance of the Safe System approach to LMICs

The Safe System approach:
  • addresses all elements of the road traffic system in an integrated way
  • emphasises the reduction of death and long-term injury rather than the prevention of crashes, which the World Report has highlighted as an unrealistic goal
  • challenges the fatalistic view aptly termed ‘the scandal of tolerance’ (Allsop, 2002) that states that road traffic injury is the price to be paid for achieving mobility and economic development. This is done by setting a societal goal with step-wise targets to eliminate road deaths and serious injuries in the long-term, which can motivate and encourage all involved
  • accentuates the shared and accountable responsibility of designers and users of the road network for achieving road safety results
  • addresses limitations in human capacities in the setting of safety standards and rules; and related compliance regimes for the planning, design and use of the road network; the conditions of entry and exit of vehicles and road users to the road network; and the recovery and rehabilitation of crash victims from the road network
  • demands equity in addressing the safety needs of both motorised and non-motorised users
  • aligns well with the goals of sustainable development and presents opportunities for achieving co-benefits with other societal objectives such as improved local air quality, greenhouse gas reduction, energy security, poverty reduction, social inclusiveness, and occupational health and safety
  • necessitates the strengthening of all elements of the road safety management system, especially institutional management functions, to achieve sustainable success.

Source: Bliss and Breen, 2012; OECD, (2008).


In-depth discussion of the Safe System approach, its scientific basis and scope is set out in Safe System Approach. An introduction to steps to implementing Safe System projects in low-income countries are set out in Institutionnal Management Functions in Management System Framework and Tools and discussed more fully in Safe System Approach and Targets and Strategic Plans.


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