If a car almost hits a pedestrian when the car is turning right on a red, whose fault is it? According to Matts-Åke Belin, Sweden's traffic safety strategist, the blame is on whoever designed the intersection.
"Why should we put the whole responsibility on the individual road user, when we know they will talk on their phones, they will do lots of things that we might not be happy about?" Belin told CityLab in an interview. "So let’s try to build a more human-friendly system instead."
Belin is one of the creators of Vision Zero, a Swedish policy instigated in 1997 that has the aim of eliminating road deaths. But unlike almost every other scheme to make roads safer, Vision doesn't try to blame the victim or the perpetrator. Instead, it tries to design the system itself to be safer. And it's working. Since its beginning, Vision Zero has more than halved road deaths, to below three fatalities per 100,000. Compare that to the U.S., where the figure is 11.6 per 100,000.
Most people in road safety, says Belin, are invested in changing human behavior. But humans don't pay attention. We take shortcuts, we use our phones when we shouldn't. Vision Zero instead takes these foibles into account, and tries to design around them. It also recognizes that zero fatalities doesn't mean zero accidents.
"In Vision Zero, the accident is not the major problem. The problem is that people get killed or seriously injured," says Belin. "And the reason that people get serious injuries is mainly because people have a certain threshold where we can tolerate external violence, kinetic energy. And we know quite well now how much violence we can tolerate."
One way to reduce injury is to reduce speed, because being hit by a car going faster is way more deadly. Wherever cars and pedestrians or cyclists are forced to mix, the speed limits are set low, at 30 kmh, or 18.6 mph. That reduces the risk of a fatal accident to 10%, instead of 80% when the limit is 31 mph.
Vision Zero isn't anti-car, either. Belin acknowledges that cars are still essential. "In our societies now, we are so dependent on road transport, we need to allow almost everyone to use this technology." We just need to control their use better.
Sweden also has a different approach to enforcement. The country has, says Belin, one of the world's largest road camera networks, and yet it catches no-one, and earns no money from fines. But still, the cameras have raised speed-limit compliance from 50% to around 90%. The lack of revenue makes it clear that the cameras' purpose is safety, not to generate money. "So we nudge people to do the right thing," says Belin.
The system seems so sensible and obvious, but like any new approach it had its share of opposition. The political economists viewed safety as a cost-benefit analysis, with fatalities being "a price that you have to pay for transport," and the road experts insisted on changing human behavior, not redesigning the system to accommodate human nature.
There's more good news, too. Belin's interview with CityLab took place in New York, while visiting a Vision Zero symposium. New York is actually pursuing a version of Vision Zero (though not without a few snags), so perhaps, one day, cars will no longer be able to turn right on red, and both pedestrians and drivers will be able to co-exist safely, by design.