Demystifying the Safe System Approach

Demystifying the 

Safe System Approach

What does it look like on our streets?

What we'll cover here:

  • What is the Safe System approach?
  • Six examples of the Safe System approach to street design
  • Ways to incorporate this into your work
  • Resources

Note: We’re not covering all aspects of the Safe System approach, but rather introducing key principles that apply to street design.

What is the Safe System Approach?

The Safe System approach is human-centered and proactive.

Key Principles:

  • People Make Mistakes. So, our transportation system should be designed and operated to accommodate inevitable mistakes and to avoid death and severe injuries.
  • People Are Vulnerable. Human bodies have limits for tolerating crash forces, so we should design and operate our transportation system to recognize and accommodate human vulnerabilities.
  • Safety is Proactive. Strategies should proactively identify and mitigate risks in the transportation system, rather than waiting for crashes to occur before reacting.

Photo credits: FHWA

Shifting to the Safe System Approach

Foundation of the Safe System approach

Read more about Evolving Beyond the E's

What Does That Foundation Look Like?

Safe Streets

Designing roadways that: 

  • Physically separate people walking and biking from drivers, wherever possible.
  • If not possible, lower speeds to protect people traveling outside of cars.
  • Use traffic calming strategies and proactive road designs to slow speeds and improve visibility.

Actively managing speeds:

  • To keep impacts on the human body at tolerable levels.
  • Design streets for desired, safe speeds, not just predominant speeds.
  • Prioritize lower speeds when people walking and biking are mixing with drivers; small changes = life or death.
  • When lowering speed limits, be sure to design for those speeds.

>> Center vulnerable populations experiencing a disproportionate rate of injuries & fatalities <<

How Do Safe System Principles Translate into Practice?

Example Situations
Safe System Design Examples

People Make Mistakes

A distracted driver swerves on a road that is a popular bicycling route.

Design physically separated bikeways to prevent drivers from crashing into bicyclists (or, at least, minimize a crash).

People are Vulnerable

Drivers making left turns at specific intersections are injuring people in a crosswalk.

Add leading pedestrian intervals, allowing people in crosswalk to get a head start before drivers make turns; or change signal timing so left turns are allowed only when pedestrians have “Don’t Walk” signal; or add pedestrian islands.

Safety is Proactive

If the situation above causes serious injuries at some locations…

Analyze other streets with similar designs to identify if problems are likely elsewhere, then proactively implement solutions systemwide.

How Does This Relate to Equity?

Safe System Design and equity

Safe System Design: Design streets and public spaces for people — prioritizing people’s safe mobility over the fast movement of cars. Examples include: Complete Streets with protected bike lanes, connected sidewalks and ample room for people walking, biking and riding transit, as well as traffic-calming and streets designed for lower, safer speeds.

Self-Enforcing Streets: The physical environment people move in is the greatest influence on how they move around. We can design for safer behavior.

Less Reliance on Punitive Measures: Effective design solutions can lessen reliance on traffic stops and interactions between road users and police.

Safe & Equitable Streets: The ultimate goal is safe & equitable mobility for all people.

Read more about Self-Enforcing Streets here.

Examples of the Safe System Approach

Austin, TX


Detroit, MI

Jersey City, NJ

Intersection Safety Program

Left Turn Pedestrian & Bicycle Crash Study

Speed Hump Installation Project

Bicycle Master Plan

Speed Management Program

Safe Streets for Seniors program

Austin, Texas

Example 1

Started in 2016, this program proactively identified 23 intersections for safety investments.

  • Assessed using crash frequency/rates and injury analysis.
  • Improvements include reconfiguring intersections, adding raised medians & enhancing walking/biking paths.
  • Aims to achieve the following in a citywide, systemic fashion: reduce fatal crashes at intersections; expand transportation options, such as walking and biking; allow all types of road users to move through corridors freely and safely.

Photo credit: City of Austin

What makes this a good Safe System example? 

Photo credit: City of Austin

  • Identifies problem areas citywide / systemically.
  • Safety interventions are implemented proactively citywide / systemically, not only at one or a few of the most problematic locations.
  • Interventions focus on reducing speeds and separating road users.
  • Centers safety and mobility of people walking, biking and riding transit by connecting walking/biking paths and transit stops.

Austin, Texas

Example 2

Started in 2019, this program aims to improve safety and livability by reducing speeds with design interventions.

Proactively assesses locations where speeding is already a documented problem or where it’s likely to be in the future. Criteria include:

  • located in designated equity analysis zones
  • presence / absence of sidewalks
  • presence / absence of bike facilities
  • proximity to transit

What makes this a good Safe System example? 

Photo credit: City of Austin

  • Proactively assesses streets citywide for problems with dangerous speeds, not waiting for complaints or injuries/deaths to occur.
  • Uses safety interventions proven to slow speeds, increase visibility, and separate road users in time and space.
  • Prioritizes areas that have been historically underserved, are close to transit, and have a high concentration of people walking and biking.

New York City, New York

Example 3

Completed in 2016, this study found that people making left turns in vehicles caused 3x more severe injuries and fatalities amongst people walking and biking compared to right turning vehicles.

In response, NYC piloted left-turn street design interventions to soften crash angles, reduce kinetic energy and impact, and separate users in time and space. The results of this study were used to implement safety improvements citywide at locations with similar, high-risk, left-turn configurations.

Photo credit: NYC DOT

Intersections with Turn Calming treatments experienced a 20% decrease in pedestrian injuries. These safety improvements are being made proactively and city-wide at locations fitting this high-risk design.

Photo credit: NYC DOT

Photo credit: NYC DOT

What makes this a good Safe System example? 

Photo credit: NYC DOT

  • Identifies a leading injury & fatality risk factor for people walking and biking: then proactively address this risk citywide.
  • Uses a variety of safety interventions, based on what is needed, including adding new leading pedestrian intervals (LPIs), tightening the turning radius for vehicles using posts and paint, and separating phases for people in crosswalks and people driving.
  • Safety improvements made proactively, citywide at locations fitting this high-risk design – not waiting for complaints or injuries or deaths to occur.

New York City, New York

Example 4

In 2022, NYC DOT completed a study showing that older New Yorkers were disproportionately at risk of being injured or killed while walking in traffic.

  • They evaluated pedestrian conditions from seniors’ perspective.
  • In response, they are laying out actionable steps to make walking safe for seniors citywide.

Photo credit: NYC DOT

What makes this a good Safe System example? 

Photo credit: NYC DOT

  • Identified seniors as a vulnerable population that was disproportionately injured and killed in crashes while walking. 
  • Strategically engaged with seniors at medical centers and in senior homes to inform placement of safety improvements.
  • These safety interventions include creating “Senior Pedestrian Zones” (areas with the highest rate of senior pedestrian injury) to guide planning projects; extending pedestrian crossing times; implementing a Senior Turn Calming initiative at 50 priority intersections.

Detroit, Michigan

Example 5

In 2022, Detroit focused on proactively addressing dangerous speeds throughout the city. The City plans to install 3,000 speed humps in locations that need them the most. Locations will be prioritized by factors including:

  • Records of speeding.
  • Proximity to schools, parks, and other areas with high concentrations of children. 
  • Streets burdened with “cut through” traffic.
  • Areas with high population density.

Photo credit: City of Detroit

What makes this a good Safe System example? 

  • Focuses on reducing speeds on streets using proven design features; not over-relying on increased policing or education campaigns.
  • Criteria for adding speed humps are based on data and experience citywide, not waiting for complaints or injuries/deaths to occur.
  • Centers vulnerable populations by prioritizing streets with high concentration of children nearby
  • Recognizes and centers areas burdened with “cut through” traffic, where more car traffic puts people at greater risk, overall.

Jersey City, New Jersey

Example 6

In 2019, Jersey City adopted the Let’s Ride JC: Bicycle Master Plan, which sets a citywide goal of no resident being more than a few blocks from a bikeway. The Plan calls for re-designing most segments of the City’s High Injury Network, including adding bikeways where needed and prioritizing safety of people walking and biking above other demands for street space.

Photo credit: Jersey City

Photo credit: Jersey City

What makes this a good Safe System example? 

  • Prioritizes investments in Communities of Concern, where majority of bicycle injuries & fatalities occur.
  • Focuses investments to attract more diverse users to biking: children, women & older adults.
  • Prioritizes separating road users, including protected bike lanes wherever possible & increasing connectivity.
  • Manages speeds by adding traffic calming measures and lowering speed limits citywide, with emphasis on the High Injury Network (HIN) and near schools.
  • Recognizes that re-designing streets citywide takes time, so applies a “quick build” approach, prioritizing areas near schools, parks, senior centers, and in Communities of Concern.

Ways to incorporate the Safe System approach in your road design work:

  • Make safe mobility your top priority. Yes, that includes overriding concerns over parking or travel time or perceived convenience.
  • Be proactive instead of reactive! Don’t wait for crashes to occur to make improvements. Analyze trends and make changes systemwide before injuries/deaths occur.
  • Use data to allocate limited safety resources. Develop a High Injury Network (HIN) and layer this with other data elevating health equity priorities and demographics.
  • Prioritize community input. Data does not tell the whole story. Find out where people feel unsafe walking or biking via grassroots outreach and address problems that may not be apparent in the data.
  • Design for people, especially those outside of motor vehicles. People need well-connected sidewalks, bikeways that feel safe to ride in, and ample public space that is not threatened by fast-moving car traffic.
  • Elevate equity in roadway design planning and outcomes. Prioritize communities that have been traditionally underserved and will benefit most from public safety investments.
  • Use quick build projects to make systemic change more efficiently. While major re-designs can take time, move forward with lower-cost, high-benefit quick-build strategies.

Thank you for your interest in the Safe System approach. We wish you well on this road to Vision Zero.

Photo credits: Halsey-Weidler Streetscape Project, Oregon DOT (cover)

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