Tag Archives: sweden

Why Are Swedish Roads So Safe?

Sweden is essentially the blueprint when it comes to best practices for car seat safety, but there are also a number of things we can learn from the country when it comes to general car safety. This will be the start of a series of posts investigating the safety of Swedish roads and determining what we can learn from them at a national, state, community, and individual level to make our roads safer for everyone.

This article from the Economist provides a brief primer to recent developments in Swedish road safety. A record low was set in 2013, with only 264 people dying in car crashes. The current death rate (for 2013) is approximately 3 per 100,000 Swedes, compared to 11.4 per 100,000 in the US, and 40 per 100,000 in the Dominican Republic, where the roads are the most dangerous on the planet in per capita terms.

To provide another perspective, in 2012 in the US, the most recent year for which full data is available, 33,561 people lost their lives, while the population was 313.9 million, for a rate of 10.7 per 100,000. There are around 9.7 million Swedes. If the US 2012 death rate could have been reduced to Swedish 2013 levels, only 9,417 individuals would have perished, instead of 33,561.

That’s an incredible difference, isn’t it?

The last time the US had an auto death rate as low as 3 per 100,000 was in 1912, the year the Titanic sank. Back then, 2,968 people died, and the US population as 95 million. The last time we lost only 9,000 individuals to car crashes was in 1917, when we lost 9,630, and there were 103 million in the country. By then, though, the death rate was almost was bad as it is now, as it had already soared in just five years to 9.3 per 100,000.

So what has made the difference?

Deaths from car crashes are unacceptable to the Swedish government

Well, a big part of it was the “Vision Zero” project.

In 1997 the Swedish parliament wrote into law a “Vision Zero” plan, promising to eliminate road fatalities and injuries altogether. “We simply do not accept any deaths or injuries on our roads,” says Hans Berg of the national transport agency. Swedes believe—and are now proving—that they can have mobility and safety at the same time.

Interesting, isn’t it? The goal of completely eliminating fatalities and injuries in collisions, and the perspective that any deaths or injuries were unacceptable. It’s an idea that would be greeted with scorn in the US, as here we accept car crashes and the needless miseries they bring as facts of life, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of them are preventable.

Planning has played the biggest part in reducing accidents. Roads in Sweden are built with safety prioritised over speed or convenience. Low urban speed-limits, pedestrian zones and barriers that separate cars from bikes and oncoming traffic have helped. 

Planning has been mentioned by a number of sources as one of the factors that sets the US apart (in a bad way) from fellow rich countries making much bigger gains in reducing deaths. Look at that–roads built for safety over convenience. That means roads that slow travelers, since speed = death, as you’ve likely seen from so many calculations on this blog. It shouldn’t be convenient to travel at 70 or 80 mph by car; people, by far and large, aren’t capable of managing vehicles with the necessary accuracy at those speeds.

Pedestrian deaths increase disproportionally with speed

Similarly, lower speed limits in urban zones are essential. A car hitting you at 20 mph has somewhere around a 5% chance of killing you. By 30 mph, those odds jump to 50%, and by 40 mph, you’ve got a 95% chance of being dead. It’s not linear; it’s exponential. This is why car crashes become serious so quickly with even just a bit of speeding. Yet speeding runs rampant throughout the US, and we pay for it with blood.

How do we protect cyclists – and how do cyclists protect us?

The same issue arises when discussing traffic separation. Bicycles are not cars; they have no inherent protection, much like pedestrians, and must be separated from vehicular traffic, much like pedestrians. In bike-friendly countries, bicycles have dedicated lanes, like sidewalks, but for bicycles, that go everywhere roads do. As a result, people feel safe to ride, which makes the roads even safer, as drivers learn to look out for cyclists. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Building 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) of “2+1” roads—where each lane of traffic takes turns to use a middle lane for overtaking—is reckoned to have saved around 145 lives over the first decade of Vision Zero. And 12,600 safer crossings, including pedestrian bridges and zebra-stripes flanked by flashing lights and protected with speed-bumps, are estimated to have halved the number of pedestrian deaths over the past five years. 

This is an elaboration of previous points. The most vulnerable travelers (pedestrians and cyclists) need to be protected. 2+1 roads, furthermore, in Sweden, are frequently designed with cable barriers, which are a great way of preventing the head on collisions that take so many lives on rural roads in the US (which are where most road fatalities in the US occur). The Swedes realized that it simply didn’t make sense to have human-steered vehicles hurtling toward each other in opposite directions at breakneck speeds with nothing between them but air and a broken yellow line.

Strict policing has also helped: now less than 0.25% of drivers tested are over the alcohol limit. Road deaths of children under seven have plummeted—in 2012 only one was killed, compared with 58 in 1970.

Sobriety testing and checkpoints are considered “meddling” by “big government” in the US, but in other countries where citizens place higher weight on the collective good, these checkpoints are much more common, and the separation of alcohol and the automobile is taken far, far more seriously.

And because this is also a car seat blog, here’s another reference to that amazing commitment to child safety. Only one child under 7 died in a car collision in 2012. A direct comparison is hard to find in the US, but in 2012, 480 children 8 and under died while passengers. At the Swedish proportion (1/264), we would have expected around 127 children 8 and under to have died. The fact that nearly 4x as many died is as clear an indicator as any that the Swedes are protecting their children in cars much better than we are. I strongly suspect a default acceptance of ERF plays a significant role in this magnitude of a difference.

Eventually, cars may do away with drivers altogether. This may not be as far off as it sounds: Volvo, a car manufacturer, will run a pilot programme of driverless cars in Gothenburg in 2017, in partnership with the transport ministry. Without erratic drivers, cars may finally become the safest form of transport.

The article ends with a look toward the future and a nod toward driverless cars. While I doubt driverless cars will surpass air travel in safety per mile, I do fully believe they will overwhelmingly surpass human-driven cars in safety, and cannot wait until their presence is as prevalent as the seat belt.

Oh, and the Volvo project has already started.

So what is there to learn from this? Clearly, the Swedes are taking a different approach to auto safety than we are here in the United States. People-centered (rather than auto-centered) planning, lower speed limits, much tighter restrictions on alcohol, and a commitment to eliminating deaths, or an entirely different conceptualization of the inevitability of the auto fatality, are all reaping benefits.

When can we try this here?

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Driving in the US More Dangerous Than in Europe

In this blog, I focus on the dangers of driving vehicles in the United States and ways to minimize those risks through safe driving practices and the selection of safe vehicles. I also present a variety of case studies in effort to learn from the mistakes of others.

However, this does not mean that I believe the solution to auto safety involves the use of ever larger vehicles. In fact, the truth of the matter is that there are a range of countries in which the risks of dying in auto collisions are significantly lower than they are here in the US. An article in Newsweek provides a brief introduction to this point.

(A map of Blood Alcohol Limits in Europe).

“Americans die on the roads at twice the rate of Europeans. Against all rich countries the U.S. doesn’t fare much better. The World Health Organization calculates an average of 8.7 fatalities per 100,000 people in high income countries compared with 11.4 in the U.S. and only 5.5 in the European Union. Subpar road safety in the U.S. shows up in other measures too, such as deaths per car or deaths per mile driven.”

The difference in those rates is significant. The US auto fatality rate of 11.4 per 100,000 people is not only higher than the 8.7 rate in fellow rich countries, it is more than twice as high as the EU rate of 5.5.

As Bernasek notes, these differences are unlikely to simply be a result of the greater public infrastructure available in the EU than in the US and the resultant decrease in reliance on personal transportation, as the US discrepancy is also visible in higher rates of deaths per car or deaths per mile driven in the country. Whichever way you slice it, people tend to die more when in cars while driving in the US than when driving in the EU.

The differences, however, do not lie specifically in vehicular design, as one might expect. While auto safety testing is a significant force in the EU (e.g., the Euro NCAP), cars in the EU are not significantly larger or heavier than they are in the US. If anything, they are, on average, smaller. So what else could it be?

Driving Safety in Sweden Doesn’t Prioritize Convenience

“So what are other countries doing that we’re not? Some countries made road safety a priority and got results. Sweden for instance, has a zero-tolerance policy on traffic-related deaths and injuries, and it has been building roads for safety rather than speed or convenience. Last year, 264 Swedes died on the roads, the lowest level ever, around three fatalities per 100,000 people.”

Bernasek astutely describes the focus a number of other countries place on road safety. In Sweden, where the Volvo car company was born, the goal of traffic deaths and injuries is to reduce them to zero, which has led to a policy of building roads with safety foremost in mind instead of roads that make it easier to speed or more convenient for the automobile. As a result, Sweden’s fatalities last year were 264, an all time low (since the early years of the automobile, of course), reflecting a death rate of 3 per 100,000. Think of how many fewer head on collisions we’d have in the US if we phased out undivided highways, for example. So many of the stories I cover are directly the result of individuals crossing center lines.

“Other countries have focused on drunk-driving laws. Researchers found random breath testing is the single most effective way to reduce deaths related to driving and alcohol. Australia had significant success in lowering road deaths related to alcohol by introducing widespread breath testing and its death rate is now around five fatalities per 100,000 people. In general, other rich countries tend to allow less alcohol in drivers’ blood than prevailing limits in the U.S.”

This is a key, key point. The US limit of 0.08 is one of the highest in the world of rich countries. In Sweden, for example, the limit is 0.02, or 1/4th of the US limit. Studies have shown that as few as *one* drink results in measurably poorer driving abilities than those found in completely sober drivers, yet the 0.08 limit in the US permits several drinks before a person is declared unfit to drive. As a result, year after year, 1/3rd of fatalities on the road in the US are linked to alcohol, which is reflected in the crashes I study on this blog.

Views on Speeding Differ in Europe from US

“Last, enforcement of speed limits is stricter in many European countries. Speed cameras, for instance, can be very effective. Speeding tends to be haphazardly enforced in the U.S., where it is sometimes considered an important source of revenue rather than a means of ensuring safety.”

The topic of speed cameras is a hotly contested one in the United States. Many drivers tend to see them as money traps, but the research shows they significantly reduce the risk of red light running, which is a significant factor in the incidence of side impact collisions, which tend to be much more likely to lead to fatalities than front impact collisions. Similarly, the tendency in the US for states to grant ever-higher speed limits also has negative consequences on the likelihoods of individuals to survive collisions at such speeds.

I will write more about these issues in the future. The key point to remember, however, is that no amount of focus on vehicular safety will make the roads safe to everyone unless driver behaviors (e.g., speeding, alcohol consumption) are modified along with environmental factors (e.g., road design, traffic cameras). Oh, and it’s also important to make sure we’re following best practices with regard to how we transport children. It’s no coincidence that Sweden, with its incredibly low auto death rates, also leads the world in protecting children in cars.

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