It's certainly no coincidence that Sweden was selected as the host nation for this year's 16th ITS World Congress – after all it is the country that has managed to reduce traffic deaths among children younger than 15 years old from over 100 annually in the 1970s to fewer than ten a year since 2004.

With car manufacturers such as Volvo and Saab also being renowned for their fierce focus on safety, Sweden's worldwide reputation for pioneering new methods and thoughts on road safety is fully justified. Such a reputation can be traced back to the 1960s when Sweden underwent the mammoth task of converting from left-hand traffic to right. This forced Swedish research departments and local communities to begin collaborating and engaging in new ways of managing traffic safety.

The move eventually happened in 1967 and it was an important milestone for the Swedish Road Administration (SRA) – the government agency primarily responsible for constructing and maintaining road networks across Sweden. Another more recent landmark for the organisation was the successful implementation of an ambitious road safety scheme primarily focused on reducing fatalities rather than crashes called Vision Zero.

SRA's traffic safety director Claes Tingvall says he believes the programme has helped revolutionise how Swedes think and act while driving on the roads.

"It was around the middle of the 1990s when we first began creating what is today known as Vision Zero. The programme aimed to inject new spirit, thoughts and actions towards road safety, effectively placing the issue higher on the agenda again like it was in the 1960s," Tingvall says.

“Sweden’s reputation worldwide for pioneering new methods and thoughts on road safety is fully justified.”

"Swedish parliament approved the project in October 1997 and since then we haven't looked back."

Gearing towards zero fatalities

In many ways, Vision Zero radically alters the conventional design principles of road safety.

Officially its ethos reads: 'Nobody should be killed or seriously injured within the road transport system. The road transport systems' structure and function should be brought into line with the demands that this goal entails'.

A priority is therefore placed on adapting the Swedish traffic system to take better account of the needs, mistakes and vulnerabilities of road users.

"Our long-term goal is to have a road system that does not risk the users' life or health. There is, however, a more complex thinking behind that. The system should fit together with human capabilities and tolerances, taking into account aspects such as dangerous kinetic energies, which is a theme we now know very well," Tingvall says.

"There is a scientific approach about how we are doing all this. A philosophy that means every professional in the road transport system – from the designers through to managers – has taken into account human error. Road safety tends to focus too much on obeying the rules – but violation is one thing, errors happen all the time."

With a clear philosophy in mind, the Vision Zero programme established various road safety priority measures. Included in this was a strong focus on traffic calming measures such as roundabouts and elevated crossings, and reviewing speed limits on national roads.

A good example of the simple but effective nature of Vision Zero is its strategy of clearing of trees and boulders from the sides of the roads. In their place, side barriers were installed which, should the driver lose control, would help mitigate the seriousness of the crash. Two-lane roads were also adapted into roads with two lanes in one direction and one lane in the opposite direction – a '2+1 system'. What proved most beneficial, however, was the placement of crash
barriers between these lanes, which is estimated to have saved roughly 50 to 60 lives a year.

"Placing a lot of mid-barriers into three or two-lane trunk roads goes against many traditional road design principals, which dictate such roads should be wide and straight. We believe, however, these roads should protect anyone who makes a mistake, so having a barrier that prevents a vehicle from going into opposing traffic lanes is both a cheap and successful way of doing that," Tingvall says.

Encouraging competition

As well as basic infrastructure changes, the SRA also tried to create a more competitive environment for car manufacturers. Technological advances in the vehicle manufacturing sector have undoubtedly played a role in making Sweden's roads safer – the introduction of intelligence reminders and electronic ability controllers being good examples of recent innovation from that market. "We have put safety on the market to create competition," Tingvall says.

“With a clear philosophy in mind, the Vision Zero programme established various road safety priority measures.”

"We brought onboard all the stakeholders involved in society and tried to make road safety something more than just police enforcement. We have given them a major role and because of the modern emphasis on corporate responsibility, they are now acting on it. Volvo, for example, is aiming to have no serious deaths in or caused by a Volvo vehicle by 2020. The company has created that goal, but it is one I don't think would have happened without our changes."

Looking at the long road ahead towards fatality-free roads, the SRA is about to begin lowering speed limits across Sweden. Although Tingvall is unable to reveal the precise details, he is quick to point out that the move is one of Vision Zero's main strategies.

"The new speed limits should be introduced in a few weeks and have been altered according to divided and undivided roads therefore supporting the system already in place.

"I believe we are at a turning point with the overall project whereby we have so many stakeholders involved and so many of the changes have been institutionalised that from now on in the only direction is forward."