WSP Authors

  • Jay Aber, Lead Traffic Engineer, USA
  • Andrew Ceifetz,  Senior Technical Principal for Transportation Safety, USA

Today, communities around the world are faced with the urgent need to rethink how to advance road safety. More than 1.35 million people die on the world’s roads each year. That number translates into 3,700 people per day—or just over one Titanic filled to capacity sinking every day.

Vision Zero, a road safety approach that started in Sweden, asserts that road deaths and serious injuries can and should be prevented. Traditional thinking about road safety has focused on perfecting human behavior to reduce the number of crashes. Vision Zero shifts the focus away from perfecting human behavior, which we will never be able to do, to designing a road system that accounts for human fallibility. Vision Zero seeks to prevent crashes that are likely to result in death and serious injuries.

The first principle in the ethical code of the National Society of Professional Engineers in the United States is “Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” Engineering societies throughout the world abide by codes with similar principles. Taking the Vision Zero approach would enable engineers to best uphold this principle in all phases of their road infrastructure project work.

The following question should guide every decision transport engineers make: “By making this decision, am I doing all that I can to preserve life on our roads?” Every other road infrastructure objective, including efficiency of movement and convenience of transport, should be addressed in the context of creating safe roads.

Diverse groups of professionals contribute to road safety, but engineers make a direct and continuous impact. Their in-the-moment judgments and decisions affecting the form and function of roads are critical for safety. By addressing each challenge with the Vision Zero mindset and applying proven treatments and techniques in line with Vision Zero, engineers can guide the way to safe roads in more communities throughout the world.


How to Start?

With the right mindset, there are diverse ways to begin approaching road infrastructure work to advance Vision Zero in all phases of projects, from planning to maintenance. For example, paying attention to accumulated data from operations and maintenance can red-flag a possible hazard. A constantly eroding shoulder signals needed attention other than repeatedly replacing the gravel at this location—where a driver is more likely to lose control and not regain the roadway. The need to re-establish a stop sign that is frequently knocked down by trucks that are over-tracking the curb is not just a costly nuisance, it calls attention to a location where there is an elevated risk of a vehicle not properly ceding the right-of-way to another vehicle or a crossing pedestrian. Instead of asking “How will we warn drivers about an upcoming hazard?”, what if we ask “How can we eliminate the hazard or prevent severe consequences if the driver cannot avoid the hazard?”

Vision Zero cultivates well-considered and purposeful evidence-based efforts to make roads safe for all users, with special attention to vulnerable users—pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists who account for more than half of all road traffic deaths worldwide. Fatality rates vary throughout the world, with low-income countries ranking the highest[1], but one point applies universally: When roads are safe for vulnerable road users, they will likely be safe for all road users.

Engineers should ask “How can we provide a balanced roadway for all transportation modes and improve safety for users of all ages and abilities?” Taking this thinking one step further, “How can we increasingly develop road networks that encourage walking, cycling and public transportation?”


Putting Vision Zero in Action

Diverse scenarios speak to the mindset shift that Vision Zero represents and the life-saving potential it brings.

Scenario No. 1:

While driving down a roadway, an elderly driver loses control of the car and runs off the road hitting a child walking home from school on the sidewalk. The child dies. On the face of it, responsibility for this death could be attributed solely to the driver; however, decisions could have been made throughout the transportation system planning and design phases to potentially prevent this tragedy.  What if additional right of way had been acquired when platting adjacent properties to place the sidewalk further from the road? What if during the street design phase the lanes had been constructed narrower to slow the speed of the car? What if a policy decision had been made to provide more public transit options so that the elderly driver did not need to rely on a car for personal transportation? If these changes had been made, would that child still be alive?

Scenario No. 2:

Two teenagers, one the driver, are travelling by car to visit a suburban shopping center. At a traffic signal, the driver makes a left-turn at the end of a permissive left-turn signal cycle (with no left-arrow light) when the lights in both directions turn from yellow to red.  The driver of an oncoming vehicle continues through the light and crashes in the teenager’s car. The impact results in the death of the teenager in the passenger seat. Responsibility for this death could be attributed to both drivers; however, decisions could have been made throughout the transportation system planning and design phases to potentially prevent this death. What if the intersection had been planned for a roundabout instead of a signal? What if during the design of the signal, retroreflective backplates, designed to draw the oncoming driver’s attention to the signal, had been installed? What if during routine maintenance of the signal, brighter LED bulbs had been used to replace incandescent bulbs to increase visibility of the traffic signal? What if a policy decision had been made to use protected-only signal phasing to avoid conflicting movements?  If these changes had been made, would the teenager still be alive?


Make the Journey

To move toward zero deaths and serious injuries, Vision Zero assigns shared responsibility to road users, who should exercise caution and obey road rules, and system designers—the people, who in their professional work influence the planning, design, operation and maintenance of the road transportation system. System designers include policymakers, politicians/government officials, planners, engineers and road designers, vehicle manufacturers, and trauma and hospital care providers, plus any other provider and enforcer of the road transport system. Everyone in this diverse group must align with the same vision to reach the destination of zero road fatalities and serious injuries.

By definition, “vision” is the ability to think or plan for the future with imagination or wisdom.[2] Vision Zero came into being because prevailing approaches to road safety had not, and still have not, solved the issue of road traffic deaths. Moving forward to impact road safety in a meaningful way requires the clear vision of Vision Zero and its reliance on evidence-based road techniques and treatments.

According to the World Health Organization, road injuries ranked No. 8 among the top 10 causes of deaths around the world in 2016.[3]  They also represented the only top cause not directly related to health conditions, such as heart disease and stroke. Among people aged 5-29, road traffic injuries are the No. 1. cause of death.[4]

Vision Zero practitioners recognize that worldwide progress toward zero serious injuries and deaths on our roads requires individual communities, large and small, to begin their unique Vision Zero journeys. For this to happen, all system designers play a vital role. Engineers can advance this effort by applying Vision Zero thinking in every step of each project they undertake. Step by step, project by project, engineers can help make roads safe throughout the world for all users.

[1] World Health Organization (WHO)
[2]  Oxford English Dictionaries
[3] WHO
[4] WHO

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