August 24, 2018 BY Vision Zero Networkin News, Webinars

Webinar Recap: Safe Systems — What Does it Mean for Vision Zero?

When discussing traffic safety, the lives so deeply impacted by injuries and fatalities can sometimes be minimized in technical and scientific jargon. Discussions about "level-of-service" for drivers or standards for traffic control devices tend to ignore the emotional and societal toll of 40,000 lives lost to traffic fatalities each year in the U.S.

Fortunately, the Vision Zero movement is helping to change the way we think and talk about safe mobility. Vision Zero is a strategy that prioritizes safe, healthy and equitable mobility for all. And the primary way that Vision Zero differs from the traditional approach to traffic safety is that it is built upon the Safe Systems approach.

So, what does Safe Systems mean?

In our recent Vision Zero Network webinar, we were pleased to welcome Eric Dumbaugh, PhD Associate Director of the Collaborative Sciences Center for Road Safety and Seth Lajeunesse, Research Associate at University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center, to share how a Safe Systems approach is foundational to achieving Vision Zero.

When a Safe Systems approach is taken, the inevitability of human mistakes is anticipated and accommodated, resulting in less severe injury crashes.

Safe Systems acknowledges the responsibility that rests with system designers -- transportation planners and engineers -- as well as policymakers in designing and maintaining a safe system for people to function within. Then, the concept holds that individuals share the responsibility to abide by the systems, laws and policies set. If safety problems persist, then the responsibility comes back to the system designers and policymakers to take further measures to ensure safe conditions. A Safe Systems approach is a paradigm shift in approaching roadway safety as an “upstream” systemic issue, not one simply resting with individuals. It is the crux of what makes Vision Zero a different, and effective, approach to saving lives. Life saving changes happen when we elevate the collective, or societal, responsibility for safe mobility, such as designing safer streets and setting safer speed limits.

Image source: Rod McClure (2017)

This image from Rod McClure, shared by Seth Lajeunesse, conveys the critical environmental, organizational and individual factors that go into a Safe Systems approach.

An example includes vehicle design as a factor in severity of injuries and fatalities. So, how can safety be better incorporated into the car industry’s decision making and standards? Similarly, how can we expect individuals to behave safely when their environments do not offer good choices for safety, such as inadequate pedestrian crossing times, overly long distances between crosswalks and incomplete bike networks, just to name a few.

Image source: 2016 OECD report, "Zero Road Deaths"

An image shared by Eric Dumbaugh (at right) embodies the Safe Systems approach, with people’s safety positioned at the core of road design, policies and decisions, all of which fall into key areas of Safe Speeds, Safe People, Safe Vehicles and Safe Roads.

Our Key Takeaways from the Safe Systems webinar

  • Don’t believe the oft-cited statistic that more than 90% of traffic crashes are due to human error, which overlooks the many other factors that influence human behavior such as poor street design and policies that prioritize speed over safety;
  • Safe Systems is helping to correct the errors of blaming individuals, or victim-blaming, for what are often-times systemic flaws in our systems (examples include poor street design and policies that do not prioritize safety);
  • This work is bigger than simply transportation planning and engineering. Decisions around such issues as land use zoning, development planning and parking policies significantly impact the likelihood and severity of crashes and must be better coordinated with a focus on safety;
  • By acknowledging human error and designing for its inevitability, the Safe Systems approach works to lessen the severity of crashes (and, thus, the severity of injuries), though does not expect to eliminate all crashes -- an important distinction.

What’s Next for Safe Systems & Vision Zero

The number of annual traffic deaths in the U.S. - 40,000 - must be addressed as a public health crisis. Doing so requires a shift from addressing these deaths (and far more injuries) solely as a transportation problem meriting typical transportation solutions, and instead calling for multi-sector solutions drawing from the fields of public health, policy, technology and the private sector. This, too, is part of the systems approach that differentiates Vision Zero different from the status quo. To meaningfully and effectively prioritize safe, healthy and equitable mobility for all, a new approach is certainly needed.

To learn more about the Safe Systems approach, join us at the Collaborative Sciences Center for Road Safety’s upcoming Safe Systems Summit: Redefining Transportation Safety in Durham, NC September 13-14, 2018. Both webinar contributors, along with Vision Zero Network executive director Leah Shahum will be presenting. Summit details can be found here.

And we invite you to join us for the second part of this webinar discussion focused on Safe Systems and Vision Zero, scheduled for October 30, 2018. For details and to register, check back at

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