Posted on September, 19th 2017
Guest Writer: Nic Ward, Director of the Center for Health and Safety Culture
What does zero really mean to your traffic safety agency?
There is growing interest and commitment at the state and national level to fundamentally change our roadway transportation system to achieve zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries. Such efforts have adopted many labels such as Target Zero, Road to Zero, Toward Zero Deaths, and Vision Zero. All these efforts share a common vision of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries, but may take different forms and represent different levels of engagement within an individual agency:
- Slogan – the label (e.g., Toward Zero Deaths) is used as a rallying cry to garner attention, energize efforts, and motivate collaboration.
- Target – zero is set as the goal and success is quantified with respect to this goal.
- Ethos – Efforts focus on promoting acceptance within the agency culture that zero is a moral imperative to motivate excellence and continual improvement in traffic safety.
- Process – the agency creates new processes that manifest the ethos of traffic safety excellence and prioritizes the goal of zero traffic fatalities and injuries.
- Plan – using the process, an agency creates a plan that identifies risks and proposes solutions to reach the zero goal (e.g., Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP), Local Road Safety Plans (LRSP)).
- System – success in achieving the zero goal will require that the actions of all traffic stakeholders are aligned and coordinated into a “safe system” as shown in the figure above.
Which level of engagement do you think your agency currently has?
Ultimately, the success of any zero goal will depend on the culture of the agency pursuing that goal and the culture within the population of road users that the agency serves. Arguably, the effect of culture is sometimes hard to perceive when you are already part of that culture. So one way to experience your own culture is to visit a different culture. Feeling “foreign” in that environment gives us a chance to reflect on the important elements of our own culture.
Recently, I had the pleasure to have such an experience when attending the Vision Zero conference in Stockholm, Sweden. The focus of this conference was examining the Swedish model for Vision Zero which is based on the safe system concept. Clearly, the successful implementation of this model at the national level is a major reason Sweden has one of the best traffic safety records amongst developed countries. And so, as one of the first and most developed models for achieving zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries, it can be considered a benchmark for developing our own models suited to the US context. Conversely, it also shows us aspects of our own traffic safety culture – both as agencies and road users – that need to change if we ever to hope to reach our zero goal.
In particular, I was struck by the assumptions discussed at this conference that underlay the Swedish model for Vision Zero. Although now self-evident to Swedish culture, many of these assumptions seemed bold, perhaps because they are new to our own culture. But let’s be honest, we will not reach zero without bold vision and audacious action.
How bold is your agency?
With this in mind, below is a list of assumptions perceived to be the foundation of the Swedish model for Vision Zero. I challenge us to reflect on these assumptions to see if we already agree – or if we need to examine our own cultures that may be barriers to their acceptance. Using these assumptions to evaluate our existing programs is also a way to expand our thinking about our programs and the missing factors needed for success. We can learn from other cultures to achieve our common goal.
- The roadway transportation system is an open and complex system (i.e., multi-modal) with many interacting components (e.g., road users, infrastructure, and vehicles).
- Traffic crashes are the result of many interacting factors, some distant in time from the crash itself.
- No one should be killed or seriously injured while using the roadway transportation system.
- The responsibility of the road user is to comply with the rules and regulations of the roadway transportation system.
- Road users are expected to make mistakes and violate the rules and regulations of the roadway transportation systems.
- Road users should not be killed or seriously injured as a result of making mistakes and violating the rules and regulations of the roadway transportation systems.
- There are limits to our ability to change road user behavior.
- The human body can be damaged by the physical impact of a crash.
- The roadway transportation system must be designed to minimize damage (and eliminate death) to road users in a crash.
- Designers of the roadway transportation system are ultimately responsible for the deaths and serious injuries occurring in this system.
- Designers of the roadway transportation system include not only engineers who build infrastructure and vehicles, but also all other entities whose actions affect the operation of the system (e.g., enforcing laws, creating policy, and providing emergency services).
- The goal of designing the roadway transportation system is to reduce death and serious injury, not reduction of crashes themselves.
- To improve traffic safety, it is necessary to combine effective strategies that address safety within all components of the traffic safety system (e.g., road, vehicle, driver, policy, and laws).
- Innovative traffic safety strategies may take longer to implement and see benefits compared to traditional short-term strategies.
- Innovative traffic safety strategies can be more effective in the long run than traditional strategies.
Based on insights such as these from attending international traffic safety conferences, the Center for Health and Safety Culture is developing a self-assessment tool for traffic safety agencies to examine their internal safety culture and assumptions underlying their vision for zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries. Part of this assessment considers the acceptance and use of traffic safety culture amongst road users as an additional paradigm for promoting safer behaviors. View an introductory video on traffic safety culture produced by the Safety Center.
Finally, please attend the December Safety Center webinar hosted by CHSC in which Dr. Matts-Åke Belin (Adjunct Professor, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Senior Advisor, Swedish Transport Administration) will discuss the key features of the Swedish Vision Zero model.