by Veronica Vanterpool December 21, 2018 in News, Webinars

Webinar Recap: Safety & Systems for Vision Zero–Putting Theory Into Practice

Safe Systems is a key difference between Vision Zero and a traditional approach to traffic safety. Yet, we acknowledge that a “systems-based approach” can sound like esoteric jargon that does not translate easily to action or motivation for those on the ground working to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries in their communities.

In this December 2018 webinar, Safety & Systems for Vision Zero: Putting Theory Into Practice, the Vision Zero Network, in partnership with the Highway Safety Research Center, hosts Peter Furth, PhD, of Northeastern University’s Civil and Engineering Department, and Kristen Hassmiller Lich, PhD, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Department of Health Policy & Management, to better explain the “systems” often referenced in the Vision Zero approach, as well as the theories and practices that underlie the shift from designing roadways for cars, to designing them for humans.

As Hassmiller Lich explains, “systems” are all the interconnecting factors or variables that contribute to an event. The Safe Systems approach to Vision Zero teaches us that a vehicle crash, for instance, is the result of a combination of many variables, such as road design, land use and transit planning, speed, policies, law enforcement and human behavior. This is a shift away from placing the blame solely on the individual driving. While all road users have an ethical responsibility towards safety, the system — road design, laws, speed and planning — should be a fail-safe for inevitable human mistakes.

How do we achieve this Safe System? Major components include reducing the speeds traveled so that the impact of a crash is significantly less likely to result in fatalities and severe injuries; including transitways, bike lanes, and sidewalks – or Complete Streets – that enhance safety for all road users; and by including multidisciplinary and diverse stakeholders who bring academic, political, technical, practical and community expertise to the table.


Using an image of an iceberg, Hassmiller Lich explains that a systems approach is the science of understanding those variables and factors “under the waterline” where the iceberg is submerged and not easily visible. Underneath each event, as shown in the image, is a series of patterns, trends, underlying structures, assumptions, beliefs and values that offer insight as to why the event happened. On a roadway with a high crash rate, we might find a pattern of speeding or running red lights and little-to-no pedestrian infrastructure, all of which point to issues that need to be addressed for the sake of safety. The road might be designed with a car-centric assumption with few, if any, accommodations for other travel modes. Looking at the different components of this system helps create a shared understanding of the problem and solutions.

Like Hassmiller Lich, Furth also notes that values influence events. He points out that transforming roadways in a Safe Systems approach begins with a shift to values-based thinking such that safe mobility is understood as a civil right. The owner of the road is responsible for safety, and road safety risks must be considered and prioritized before an injury or death occurs. Comparing traffic fatality rates in Europe with the U.S., Furth notes that countries that have adopted a systematic approach to safety have significantly reduced traffic fatalities.

Courtesy: Peter Furth

Furth highlights that the adoption of these values in other nations, including The Netherlands and Sweden, has resulted in greater progress in reducing traffic deaths than the U.S. over the same time period. He also notes that Safe Systems doesn’t just mean zero injuries, but also means “free participation” by people walking or biking — people not turned away from these active modes of transportation by the unsafety (or perception of unsafety) of roads.

Vision Zero advances this free participation, calling for safe mobility for all road users. To learn more about the theories and systems underlying Safe Systems and Vision Zero, watch the full webinar here.

For more information about Safe Systems, watch our previous webinar, Safe Systems: What Does it Mean for Vision Zero?

Also check out these other resources:
Peter Furth’s video on Systematic Safety: The Principles Behind Vision Zero which provides an explanation of the Dutch ‘sustainable safety’ policy.

World Resources Institute’s report, Sustainable & Safe: A Vision and Guidance for Zero Road Deaths

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