The safe systems approach to road safety


What is safe systems?

Safe systems is an approach to road safety management, based on the principle that our life and health should not be compromised by our need to travel. No level of death or serious injury is acceptable in our road transport network.

Safe systems is designed with the human being at its centre, taking human fallibility and vulnerability into account, and accepting that even the most conscientious person will make a mistake at some point. The goal of safe systems is to ensure that these mistakes do not lead to a crash; or, if a crash does occur, it is sufficiently controlled to not cause a death or a life-changing injury.

Responsibility for the system is shared by everyone. Policy makers, planners, engineers, vehicle manufacturers, fleet managers, enforcement officers, road safety educators, health agencies and the media are accountable for the system’s safety; while every road user, whether they drive, cycle or walk, is responsible for complying with the system’s rules.

A safe systems approach also aligns road safety management with broader ethical, social, economic and environmental goals. By creating partnerships where government or transport agencies work closely with other groups, safe systems tackles other problems associated with road traffic, such as congestion, noise, air pollution and lack of physical exercise.

Safe systems is made up of four main components:

Who developed it?

The two earliest countries to adopt a safe systems approach to road safety were Sweden and the Netherlands: see Case studies below.

Sweden launched “Vision Zero” in 1994 [1], based on a strategy already in use in the air and rail transport industries, and summarised by the sentence “No loss of life is acceptable”. Vision Zero became law in 1997 as part of a Road Traffic Safety Bill, setting an ultimate target of no deaths or serious injuries on Sweden’s roads.

The Netherlands demo-ed its Sustainable Safety approach in 1995, followed by a full start-up programme in 1997 [2]. Sustainable Safety differs slightly from Sweden’s Vision Zero approach in that it does not assume that road users will obey the rules, and it considers public information and education to be a vital part of safe systems.

Is safe systems used in the UK?

Today, safe systems is considered to be international best practice in road safety by the World Health Organisation (WHO) [3] and the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) [4]. Both organisations recommend that all countries, regardless of their level of road safety performance, follow a safe systems approach.

Safe systems has not been adopted by the UK government as a whole. However, Highways England, a government-appointed company set up to operate and improve the strategic road network (motorways and major A-roads) in England, has a safe systems approach at its heart, focusing its strategy on “safer vehicles, safer roads for safer people” [5].

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) published a guide in 2013, advising local authorities in England on how they might introduce safe systems [6]. Safe systems has since been adopted by several local administrations, including Bristol City Council (see Case studies below) and Brighton & Hove City Council. At the time of writing, Birmingham City Council was preparing a new road safety strategy based on a safe systems approach, which was expected to be approved by the end of 2015.

How is safe systems implemented?

A successful safe system approach is developed through:

  • taking an aspirational vision of road safety
  • altering people’s views about the inevitability of crashes, and overturning institutionalised attitudes towards road safety responsibility
  • commitment at the highest levels of government
  • carrying out data collection and analysis, so that crash risks and current road safety performance can be better understood
  • greater financial investment in road safety
  • sharing knowledge [7]

Safer roads

According to a safe systems approach, roads are designed to reduce the risk of crashes occurring, and the severity of injuries if a crash does occur. Safety features are incorporated into the road design from the outset, for example:

Segregating road users: One of the key dangers on our roads is that different types of road user share the same space. As far as possible, a safe systems approach seeks to segregate different road users, developing and enhancing safer routes for vulnerable users. For example, a local council or transport authority may focus on creating or expanding a cycle route network; construct and maintain footways; or work with schools to develop safer walking routes for children.

Segregating traffic: It is also desirable to segregate traffic that is moving in different directions or at different speeds – for example, by crash barriers separating opposite lanes of traffic. Crash barriers and other physical measures should be “soft” and give in the event of a crash, and verges made safer.

Speed: If segregation of people and traffic is not possible, then appropriate speed limits are put in place to protect the most vulnerable of road users. As part of their safe systems approach, for example, both Bristol and Brighton & Hove city councils have introduced a 20mph city-centre speed limit.

Self-explaining roads: Safe systems roads are “self-explaining”, i.e. they are designed so that the driver is aware of what is expected of them and behaves appropriately. Each class of road is immediately distinctive, with its own carriageway width, road markings, signing and use of street lighting that are consistent throughout the route. The simplicity and consistency of the road’s design reduces driver stress and driver error.

There is also an emphasis on a proactive approach to road safety, with improvements made to improve both the actual and perceived risks of road safety. Crash hot spots are identified, and targeted engineering measures taken to remedy them, e.g. by improving road surfaces, removing roadside obstacles to vision, or installing traffic lights.

Safer speeds

Speed limits in safe systems are based on aiding crash avoidance and a human body’s limit for physical trauma. An unprotected pedestrian hit at over 20mph has a significant risk of death or life-changing injury. A car in a side-on collision can protect its occupants up to around 30mph; a car in a head-on collision up to around 40mph [8].

Safe systems seeks to:

Establish appropriate speed limits: These are set according to road features and function and the known physical tolerances of road users, e.g. by rolling out a 20mph speed limit across a city centre or residential streets.

Enforce existing limits: Transport authorities work with the police to develop and evaluate speed enforcement. They may also work with community groups such as Community Speedwatch (CWS), a locally driven initiative where community members use speed detection devices to monitor vehicle speed, with the support of the police [9].

Educate road users: Authorities can mount speed enforcement and education campaigns. They might also ensure speed limit compliance by working directly with fleet drivers, licensed taxi companies or contractor vehicles.

Learn more: Read our fact pages and our advice for drivers on staying slow and safe.

Safer vehicles

Vehicles are designed, built and regulated to minimize the occurrence and consequences of crashes, with the emphasis on collision survivability. There are two main strands to safer vehicles – technology and road-worthiness:

Technology: ‘Active safety’ measures that help to prevent crashes include collision-avoidance systems, (semi-)autonomous vehicles, stability control, improved road-vehicle interaction, automatic braking systems, air cushion technology, alcolocks, and speed limiters on fleet vehicles. Vehicle components that protect occupants if a crash does occur (‘passive safety’) include three-point seat belts, padded dashboards and airbags.

Road worthiness: Consumers and businesses are encouraged to purchase safer vehicles. Vehicles are then maintained to the highest safety standards.

Learn more: Read our fact pages on choosing safer vehicles and vehicle maintenance, and our advice page on vehicle maintenance and breakdowns.

Safer road use

Everyone who uses roads is encouraged to use roads safely and comply with road rules. Emphasis is placed on a philosophy of shared and proportionate responsibility. Safe systems encourages safer road use in various ways, including:

Traffic reduction: Authorities work to reduce the volume of motor vehicle traffic, for example, by encouraging greater use of safer modes of travel such as public transport.

Education: Safe systems creates risk-aware drivers through education and publicity; for example, making new drivers aware of the risks they face, and encouraging all road users to travel unimpaired, alert, at safe speeds and without distraction, complying with road rules at all times. In-vehicle technologies may be used to give safety feedback and reduce risky behaviours by monitoring how a vehicle is driven, and feeding back information on speed, seatbelt use, hard acceleration and braking. Drivers who do not follow rules are required to undertake further education, for example, through the UK’s National Driver Offender Retraining Scheme (NDORS) course.

Use of streets for other purposes: By encouraging streets to be used for a range of community purposes, everyone is encouraged to have a stake in their streets. This may be small-scale, street-wide activities such as street parties and playing-out activities, or larger-scale municipal closures like “Paris Respire", where roads along the Seine are closed to traffic on Sundays.

Examine new ways of measuring safety: Traditionally, casualty statistics have been the primary method of measuring road safety. Safe systems looks to additional ways of measuring safety, e.g. the public’s perception of road danger.

Integrated school travel planning initiatives: Children are encouraged to use roads more safely. Transport authorities might work closely with schools to create safe walking routes for children, or expand the number of School Crossing Patrols in the area.

Learn more: Read our Campaigns pages for more on Brake’s campaigning work
Learn more: See Brake’s Kids Walk and Beep Beep! Day pages for children’s road safety events

Case studies

Sweden – Vision Zero 

Sweden launched its “Vision Zero” strategy in 1994 [10], based on a philosophy already in use in the air and rail transport industries. This maintains that life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within society: they always take priority over the road traffic system.

At its core, Vision Zero states that humans are fallible, so our road systems cannot be. Safety must become the principle feature, with human error compensated for at all points. It seeks to promote long-term road safety developments across all of society’s institutions, including more involvement from the private sector.

Vision Zero became law in 1997 as part of a Road Traffic Safety Bill, setting an ultimate target of no deaths or serious injuries on Sweden’s roads.

The scheme is considered a success. Sweden has one of the world’s lowest traffic-related fatality rates. Road deaths have continued to decrease despite a steady rise in traffic.

Netherlands – Sustainable Safety

From the mid-1990s, the Netherlands developed Sustainable Safety [11], the goal of which was to prevent crashes from occurring, or if that could not be done, to prevent serious injury or death.

Sustainable Safety relied on wide-scale infrastructure changes to achieve its results, for example, from the start of the initiative up to 2003, the number of roads covered by a 30km/h limit was increased by approximately 30,000 km.

Between 1998 and 2007, the number of road deaths in the Netherlands decreased by an estimated 30%, compared to a scenario-based forecast made using previous road safety policy [12].

Bristol City Council

In March 2015, Bristol unveiled a 10-year plan for a safe systems approach to road safety. The plan was formed to make Bristol’s roads safer, encourage people to make sustainable travel choices, improve the quality of life of Bristol’s residents, and reduce the economic impact of road crashes, which cost the city over £40m in 2013 [13].

The plan is based on six action points: reduce the cost of public transport and improve its reliability; improve the city’s cycle network; reduce emissions; tackle commuter congestion; promote walking and cycling as alternatives to car use; and improve road layout to make safe, people-friendly streets.

Bristol City Council has used its previous road safety successes – e.g. 20mph limits in residential streets, the “Wheels, Skills and Thrills” project designed to improve young driver behaviour – to set the standard for its 10-year plan [14].

To achieve a safe systems approach, the council works closely and collaboratively with many groups: transport and engineering services; health and emergency services; advanced driving groups (IAM/RoSPA); driving schools and instructors; fleet services including taxi drivers and bus operators; schools and universities (UWE); campaigning groups (Sustrans, Living Streets); and neighbourhood partnerships and local residents.


[1]^ Vision Zero

[2]^ SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research

[3]^ Global Plan for the Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020, WHO

[4]^ Towards Zero: Ambitious road safety targets and the safe system approach, OECD 2008

[5]^ Strategic Business Plan 2015-2020, Highways England 2014

[6]^ Road Safety: A guide for local councillors in England, RoSPA 2013

[7]^ Towards Zero: Ambitious road safety targets and the safe system approach, OECD 2008

[8]^ Speeding - Did you know? Factsheet, Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales 2011

[9]^ Community Speedwatch (CWS)

[10]^ Sweden – Vision Zero Initiative

[11]^ Sustainable Safety in the Netherlands: the vision, the implementation and the safety effects, SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research, 2005


[13]^ A Safe Systems Approach to Road Safety in Bristol: A 10-year Plan, March 2015

[14]^ A Safe Systems Approach to Road Safety in Bristol: A 10-year Plan, Appendix 2,

March 2015

Page created September 2015

Tags: speed road deaths serious injury health safe systems