Shifting to a Safe System for Everyday Transportation

by Vision Zero Network | July 13, 2021 | in News

National Roundtable Discussion: July 2021

News of an airplane or train crash in the U.S is likely to get a lot of media attention and include an official response from the National Transportation Safety Board, or the NTSB. But did you know that this influential independent Federal agency is also charged by Congress with investigating “significant accidents in other modes of transportation,” including roadway crashes?

This may seem surprising. Despite 40,000 people killed and millions more injured each year on our nation’s everyday transportation system – which far exceeds those of the other modes – it is aviation, marine, railroad & pipeline issues that garner more attention and action from national safety experts, policymakers, media and the general public. 

Why? Traffic deaths are too often mistakenly viewed as separate “accidents” that happen independently and disconnected from each other. In reality, though, the vast majority of these tragedies share common traits and are predictable and preventable. Traffic deaths and injuries are, largely, the results of the systems we’ve put in place — recognizing and addressing those systems are essential to advancing safe mobility for all.

Shifting to a Safe System

How do we draw much-needed attention to this system and make meaningful systems-level change? These were the questions we tackled at the July 7th roundtable (watch here) organized by NTSB and led by Board Member Jennifer Homendy. The panel discussing the Safe System approach to traffic safety included Vision Zero Network’s Founder and Director Leah Shahum; Linda Bailey, Vision Zero Director at District of Columbia Department of Transportation; Dr. Jamila Porter, Director of Resilient Communities at Big Cities Health Coalition; Dr. Laura Sandt, Director at Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, UNC Highway Safety Research Center; and Wendy Weijermars, Senior Researcher and Research Manager at SWOV Institute for Safety Research in the Netherlands.

These events – part of a series of roundtables the NTSB and Member Homendy are hosting in the coming months – are elevating the prominence of the Safe System approach, which is the foundation of Vision Zero, and signify growing support for shifting how we think about and conduct work for safe mobility. The next event is on July 21st and focuses on Eliminating Unsafe Speeds.

The simple truth is that the state of safety of people traveling on our roadways, sidewalks, and bikeways is moving in the wrong direction. The U.S. trails other high-income nations in terms of safety rates. And traffic crashes are the leading cause of death amongst youth in this country. 

Last year, in 2020, people in the U.S. traveled far less (13% fewer miles traveled than 2019) because of the pandemic but far more people died (8% increase over 2019) – the highest number since 2007.

Member Homendy began the Safe System roundtable by challenging us to “be more ambitious” in order to find ways to completely eliminate fatalities and serious injuries on our roads. “Some people say it’s not possible,” she stated. “I say, ‘Why not?’”


“We need a paradigm shift in how we think about road safety and how we address road safety,” Homendy explained.


For the past century, the traditional E’s approach to traffic safety (Engineering, Education, Enforcement & Emergency response) helped save lives, but this is not delivering the progress needed now. Communities and agencies across the nation and world are recognizing the limitations of the E’s-only approach (more below) and are shifting to the Safe System approach.

Safety by Design: Proven to be Effective 

Put succinctly: A Safe System is one that is designed in a way that prevents errors as much as possible and lessens the impacts of errors when they do happen. 

This concept of Safety by Design – or a Safe System approach – was used earlier in fields such as aviation. Beginning in the 1990s, the concept started to be applied to road safety too. Dr. Wendy Weijermars, Senior Researcher and Research Manager with SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research, kicked off the panel discussion with this explanation:


A Safe System approach to traffic safety starts with the ethical imperative that no one should be killed or seriously injured as a result of road crashes, as the blame is partly on the system itself. So, we should not focus only on changing individual behaviors, but also on changing the system itself.


This system includes the design of our communities and roads, how we set and manage speeds, how vehicles are designed and permitted to operate, what transportation options exist where and for whom, and how norms and rules are set for moving about.

Case studies from the influential international report, Zero Road Deaths and Serious Injuries: Leading a Paradigm Shift to a Safe System, show that a paradigm shift to a Safe System is possible and can lead to significant reductions in casualties and risks. It is also found to be cost-effective, with Safe System benefits being 3-to-4 times higher than its costs. And while the fundamentals are the same – including a proactive, human-centered, systems-level approach – each country and culture can adapt Safe Systems to address its needs.

Adapting Safe Systems in the U.S.

A Safe System approach is, fundamentally, a human-centered approach, explained Leah Shahum, of the Vision Zero Network. It involves shifting our focus upstream, moving beyond trying to change individual behavior, and recognizing that we have a societal responsibility to put safe systems in place for all road users. This includes the way we design communities and roadways, set policies, and shape messaging and learning.

Today, with an average 110 people killed each day in preventable traffic deaths, we are reaping the tragic results of a system that has been built mainly for speed and perceived convenience of some people over others. To change this, we need to shift to a system that is designed for safety for all people. The good news is that we can make that shift. But first, we need to recognize and address our everyday transportation system as a system. 

Jamila Porter, Director of Resilient Communities, Big Cities Health Coalition, added that a system that is safe by design is intentionally meant to protect those who are most likely to be unprotected. This means that safety is not only the commodity of certain people and certain parts of town; instead, it belongs to all of us.

“In a Safe System, there’s not a dangerous side of town and a safe side of town,” Porter explained. “The system itself, across the entirety of the network, is safe, and everyone has equitable access to safety and comfort.”

Linda Bailey, Vision Zero Director with the D.C. Department of Transportation, explained how this translates to the local level: “This means designing our streets so that it’s intuitive to travel safely.” For transportation professionals such as herself, Bailey said, this includes designing from a different principle — shifting from maximizing car through-put and speeds to focusing on safety of all using the roads.

We’ve done a lot to accommodate vehicles, added Laura Sandt, or the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, and we can and should do much more to understand people’s limitations and vulnerabilities and to adapt the system to prioritize safety of people over speed and through-put of vehicles. 

That’s a big shift, yes. But one that needs to happen to put an end to the preventable and tragic loss of tens of thousands of lives each year and millions of serious injuries.

How Do We Get There?

The hardest parts of shifting to a Safe System approach are not actually the technical or economic challenges; we largely know what works to reach Vision Zero, and to save lives and prevent suffering. 

The greatest barriers to changing the status quo, when it comes to ensuring safe mobility, are the political, social, and professional challenges.

What’s needed most?: Strong and sustained leadership to create a sense of urgency for change and to effectively involve and build buy-in amongst stakeholders for the paradigm shift in which safety matters more than speed.

We need people to urge leaders to shake off the complacency that we’ve allowed, societally. This starts, Shahum suggested, by recognizing and naming the problems of our everyday transportation system, (which intersect with other challenges, more below), and acknowledging that we do have power to fix the problems.

“Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death of youth in this nation. How is this not outraging people?” Shahum asked.

Porter discussed the challenges of conveying the systemic nature of this problem to people, including policymakers, who often normalize the losses as unfortunate, inevitable, calculated risks within society. Their focus remains on individual errors or lapses in responsibility, rather than panning out to recognize and address the systems within which we, as individuals, are all functioning.

Pointing out an important fundamental reality, Porter explained that the shift to a Safe System approach must reckon with some deeply held norms and beliefs in the U.S., particularly around the value of individual responsibility. Initially, this could be seen as running counter to the systemic approach toward safety for all, but that doesn’t have to be the case.


“We have to figure out how to reconfigure those values into long, deep-seated American values,” she said. “Where we’re talking about freedom, for instance, that we’re talking about we want freedom for everyone – that safety, looking at this systemically, is actually the key to freedom as opposed to the limitation of it.”


This is possible, Porter explained, if we connect and collaborate across fields and with the community so that the Safe System approach is connecting with the values that we already know are there and are long-held.

Other panelists echoed this need to recognize that meaningful changes in shifting our transportation system will take significant and long-term investments. An example, as Bailey explained, is the need to offer more and better options to driving, such as reliable and efficient transit service and comfortable and inviting walking and biking.

Another need, offered by Sandt, is recognizing that many people expect quick fixes to traffic safety problems, so their first impulse is to ask for more enforcement. But this isn’t the way successful nations have made lasting changes. Instead, she said, we need to think long-term and address the root causes of these complex challenges. Sandt explained that we need to move beyond playing in the margins, including understanding that change will take more than technical or engineering changes, but also requires addressing the more fundamental social, political, and professional barriers to change.

Zooming Out: Connecting Traffic Safety to Everything

A theme of the discussion was the need to “zoom out” to understand the systems – both the transportation system we’re trying to address, the one we’re all moving about in, and the social/political/process-oriented systems in which changes are made. Regarding the latter, there was agreement that too many voices have been excluded in transportation (and related) decision making, highlighting the troubling differential in power and privilege of who’s “at the table” in decision making.

As Porter explained, how we make decisions about mobility in public space and about public safety matters. And we need to give more of this power back to the communities themselves, especially those that have most endured safety problems. 

Part of the work of shifting to the Safe System approach can and must be focusing on the interconnectedness of everything, zooming out to see the larger picture. And, this means we also have to look back. 

“What has happened in the past is not the past,” Porter explained. “The past impacts the present right now. Historical wrongs are still having impacts today.” Examples include the widespread practice of redlining, disruption of communities with freeways and “development”, and continued disinvestment and underinvestment in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.

Infrastructure in communities is not by accident, Porter explained, but by design. Utilizing a Safe System approach can result in safety by design only if we reimagine, restructure, and rebuild in ways that are equitable and just. This starts with acknowledging historical events and how they impact conditions and environments today.

Data recently released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that traffic deaths amongst Black people in the U.S. increased 23% in 2020 compared to 2019, the largest increase in traffic deaths among all racial groups. Unfortunately, this isn’t surprising, Shahum said, given that communities of color have historically been burdened with more freeway touchdowns, more high-speed and high-traffic roads, and fewer safe walking and biking conditions. 

As the Complete Streets Coalition analysis shows, some communities are, literally, Dangerous by Design, which means that youth, the elderly, low-income people, communities of color, and people walking and biking are all disproportionately hit and injured on roadways in the U.S. Again, we have the know-how to change this, but do we have the political and social will to do so?

What’s Next?

As advocates and leaders for safe mobility, we have a lot to learn from the public health approach to other widespread challenges. Member Homendy pointed to the Spectrum of Prevention, a model developed by the Prevention Institute, which helps demonstrate that individual decisions are influenced by a wide web of factors, including community norms, policies, organizational practices, and more. So, how we address road safety must focus not just on individual behaviors on the road but also at those many broader influences.

Adapted by Vision Zero Network, based on Prevention Institute‘s Spectrum of Prevention

Looking ahead, Porter encouraged people in the transportation safety field to meaningfully partner with others in the realms of public health and social justice and related fields to shift to a collaborative governance model toward safe mobility, in which community members are valued and engaged in planning and decision making.

Sandt encouraged people to keep showing up and to keep learning and innovating and recognizing that things are always changing. At the heart of this work, she reinforced, is interconnectedness to other important issues, so we can’t silo transportation safety work.

Shahum urged people to call out the 40,000 traffic deaths each year as the public health crisis that it is, not accept these tragedies as inevitable costs of modern society. Whether we’re community advocates working to change one street in our town or state- or Federal-level policymakers or professionals, we all have a role to play in shifting the paradigm by not accepting today’s broken — and fix-able — system.

Finally, Shahum asked the NTSB leaders to continue this stepped-up focus on the safety of our everyday transportation system in a sustained way, reminding us that far more people are killed every day driving, walking, and biking than via the other modes that draw more attention and urgency. Just as NTSB investigates problems and recommends systemic changes in the fields of aviation, maritime, and rail that have helped increase safety, we need this proactive, systems-level leadership focused on everyday transportation.


Thank you to the NTSB team and especially Board Member Jennifer Homendy for their leadership in elevating the Safe System conversation and promoting the goals and strategies to reach Vision Zero.

Tune into their ongoing roundtable series on the Safe System approach.

A few other Safe System resources:

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