Vision Zero and its ‘Safe Systems Approach’ have been at the forefront of the road safety paradigm for many years now and is seen across Europe and indeed globally as an excellent way to frame successful road safety policies and interventions.


The idea of the Safe Systems Approach is to accept the fact that mistakes will always be made on the road. Even the best drivers, riders and walkers make mistakes or wrong decisions. It is up to road safety experts to come up with a way of eliminating incidents while taking into account the fact that we are all human and that people make mistakes. It looks at the road as a holistic unit and as a system. Planning and developing with the Safe Systems Approach takes into account all road users and spreads the share of responsibility between those on the road, transport planners, infrastructure designers, implementers and road agencies. Traffic infrastructure must be made forgiving so that when mistakes are made mishaps are kept to a minimum with as low impact forces as possible.

A Vision Zero/Safe Systems approach is a reaction to the traditional cost/benefit model of road safety whereby safety interventions for saving lives are weighed against other costs and benefits. The Swedish Safe Systems Approach states that “human life and health are paramount and take priority over mobility and other objectives of the road traffic system”, a clear denunciation of transport costs, freight costs, or time and mobility costs; human life and health is sacrosanct and is the number one priority for road management and funding. While this has been an admirable approach, the inclusion of health benefits is particularly important with regards to active modes of transport.

Because cycling and walking contribute to an active, healthy lifestyle we need to incorporate the health benefits of active transport within our road safety considerations and interventions. If a road safety intervention has a detrimental effect on the comfort and attractiveness of cycling, or if it increases the perception of risk, the intervention should not be acceptable within the Safe Systems/Vision Zero conception of road safety.

Cycling is such a healthy activity if practiced daily for even short journeys, regardless of how effective a road safety intervention is, if it acts as a barrier to cycling then it will have failed to improve public health. Even if a road safety intervention solved 100% of all fatalities it would still be ineffective as a public health measure if it reduced the number of cyclists by even a small amount.

This is a problem and seeming paradox that should be borne in mind. On the one hand we have the noble goal of zero fatalities, but on the other we have to ensure that a road safety intervention does not act as a barrier to active healthy modes of transport like cycling and walking, even if the road safety intervention is effective.

We must therefore be aware of how we measure the success and implementation of Vision Zero/Safe System approaches. If, for example, a stretch of road is narrow and dangerous, one solution would be to ban cyclists from using it entirely. This intervention may achieve Vision Zero. Or we could widen the road, remove the walkway and add a central barrier, which would reduce driver risk perception and lead to increased speeds, scaring off cyclists and walkers. This intervention may also achieve Vision Zero. Or we could implement compulsory helmet and visibility jacket laws and scare cyclists back into their cars. We would reduce cyclist fatalities to zero because…there wouldn't be any left! A better option would be to design good infrastructure to make cyclists safer and reduce traffic speeds. There is obviously only one correct approach here for improving public heath, but from a superficial reading of Vision Zero/Safe Systems one could argue for a shift away from healthy modes; it depends on perspective.

One perspective is to make ‘vulnerable’ modes of transport 100% safe at all costs and encourage (even unintentionally) people to avoid healthy modes of transport. The other is to support and encourage cyclists and pedestrians by making roads and infrastructure safer for them as well as reducing the perception of risk, leading to greater uptake. Both would reduce cycling fatalities but only one would improve public health and simultaneously reduce risk!

The Safe Systems Approach could be easily, if wrongly, interpreted as accepting the continual or even increased use of the vehicles that are always the main cause of serious road traffic mishaps, accepting the current status quo of vehicle use, and not tackling the problem at source.

Improving cycling conditions and prioritising active modes should be a crucial part of the Vision Zero/Safe Systems approach. Vision Zero should not accept the continual or even increased use of the main cause of traffic accidents in highly populated areas: the motorised vehicle. The Safe Systems Approach should also be about encouraging greater use of safer, active modes of travel such as public transport, walking and cycling, which is sometimes forgotten by Vision Zero/Safe Systems.

When we call for Vision Zero it must not be Vision Zero at all costs. Taken to extremes, nobody would cycle or walk, and everybody would instead be sitting in large cars moving on slow, congested roads. It is essential that the health benefit of active transport is not lost in Vision Zero/Safe Systems.