Not since Ralph Nader’s automobile safety advocacy resulted in the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act has there been as significant a drive towards eliminating road accident fatalities as that undertaken by Sweden just over a decade ago.

In 1997, Sweden, a country that already had a low level of road fatalities per head of population, launched a road safety strategy known as ‘Vision Zero’. As the title suggests this had the aim of reducing road accident fatalities to zero – a demanding target by any measurement, though one the Swedes are determined to meet.

Vision Zero was a continuation of earlier drives to reduce road fatalities according to a set of regular targets. In 1990 the then Swedish National Traffic Safety Programme set a target of reducing fatalities to 600 by 2000.

This target was in fact achieved by 1994 so its successor organisation, the Swedish National Road Administration (SNRA) revised the target further downwards to 400 fatalities by 2000. By 2020 the Swedes aim to have totally eliminated all traffic accident fatalities.

The strategy certainly seems to have borne fruit, according to the statistical evidence. In 1995 there were a total of 572 road deaths in Sweden, or a fatality rate of 6.5 per 100,000. A decade later, in 2005, Sweden recorded some 440 road deaths or 4.9 per 100,000. By way of comparison, in 1995 there were 2,995 road deaths in England or 6.1 per 100,000 and ten years later there were 2,735 deaths, equivalent to 5.4 per 100,000.

Sweden now has one of the lowest road fatality rates in Western Europe, matching that of Norway, with only the Netherlands scoring a lower rate of 4.6 per 100,000.

“Sweden now has one of the lowest road fatality rates in Western Europe.”


Critical to Vision Zero is its notion of shared responsibility; it widens the responsibility for road safety from being that of the road user alone and includes that of the road system designer. Also important is its emphasis on best-possible scenarios. It therefore emphasises the optimal state of Sweden’s roads, rather than just tackling existing problems.

Its strategic principles are that the traffic system must adapt to take account of the needs, vulnerabilities and mistakes of road users; that the road transport system must be designed considering the level of violence the human body can tolerate and that vehicle speed should not exceed the level of violence the human body can tolerate.

These underlying principles form the basis of the strategy with its four main planks which are: to create road environments that minimise the risks of road users making mistakes and that prevent serious human injury when designing, maintaining and operating the state road network; to set an example in the SNRA’s own operations through the quality assurance (from a road safety perspective) of journeys and transports in all areas of activity, both those undertaken in house and those contracted; to analyse accidents that have resulted in fatalities or serious injuries and where possible initiate measures that will avoid their repetition; to stimulate all players in the road transport system to work towards achieving mutually agreed targets and to take advantage of and further develop the public’s commitment to road safety.

These aims are realised through specific measures. In 1999 the Swedish government launched an 11-point action plan aimed at strengthening traffic safety work in accordance with the Vision Zero principles.

The points included focusing on dangerous roads, making traffic safer in built-up areas, emphasising the responsibilities of road users and the responsibilities of road transport system designers, making bicycle traffic safer, quality assurance in transport work, mandating the use of specific tyres for wintry road conditions, making the better use of Swedish technology, public responses to traffic violations, examining supplementary ways of financing new roads and emphasising the role of voluntary organisations in road safety work.


Key to the Vision Zero approach is the notion that transport systems must be designed with a view to what the human body can stand. According to Lars Darin at the Swedish Ministry of Enterprise, Energy and Communications, some of the most important measures have been those concerned with traffic calming.

“An innovative feature of the Vision Zero strategy has been the introduction of the 2+1 highway, separated by a median barrier.”

“We did some analysis last year and found that the most important contributors were the measures we put in place on the roads, redesigning roads, separating traffic volumes, putting in place a lot of wide two-lane roads and erecting metal barriers in the middle of them,” he says.

As a result of the Vision Zero programme, there have been visible changes on Sweden’s roads. Speed humps are now far more common and many roads have seen central road barriers erected. Also noteworthy are the number of road intersections which have been converted into roundabouts.

These calm traffic and reduce the consequences of any collisions that may occur at a normal intersection because of the different angles of impact and speed being lowered.

The decision to increase the number of roundabouts in preference to another traffic calming device, traffic lights, points to another strategic aspect of the Vision Zero plan – distinguishing between the severity of accidents. Traffic lights are effective at reducing the number of accidents but those that do happen tend to be severe, whereas roundabouts are less successful at reducing accident numbers but those which occur tend to result in more minor injuries.

An innovative feature of the Vision Zero strategy has been the introduction of the 2+1 highway, separated by a median barrier. Median barriers were first installed on a stretch of road which had a poor record for fatalities in 1998 and found to be successful in reducing the death rate. Since 2000 installation of median barriers on Swedish roads has accelerated.

Motorways have also been the subject of a variety of design improvements. Where there are steep cliffs, guard rails have been installed and rigid posts and older guard rails which deflected cars back into the traffic have been replaced with steel cable guard rails which catch hold of cars.


Mindful of the fact that the majority of traffic fatalities are caused by vehicles travelling too fast, there has also been a strong emphasis on reducing speeding by using speed cameras and introducing speed limits.

“We realised that if were going to reduce and eventually cut out deaths on our roads, we would have to take speed out of the system,” Darin says. “We now have about 800 fixed speed cameras in Sweden as well as some mobile cameras. We also now have many more 30km zones.” Along with the rest of Europe, Sweden benefited from newer, better-designed cars, which have better crash protection.

“In 2005 it became compulsory for all cyclists aged 15 and younger to wear helmets.”


The Swedish government, automotive industry and insurance companies all co-operate in promoting seatbelts with the result that it has one of the highest rates of seatbelt usage in the EU.

Similarly, stakeholder groups are working together to develop alcohol ignition interlocks which are cheap enough to be installed in all vehicles.

Neither have cyclist fatalities been neglected by the Vision Zero programme. Cyclists are particularly at risk from head injuries so campaigns have been conducted to increase the use of helmets. In 2005 it became compulsory for all cyclists aged 15 and younger to wear helmets.

Critical to the Vision Zero programme has been the Swedish government’s determination for it to succeed. “The idea was that we needed a new way of thinking about road safety, a more holistic approach,” says Darin.