Conference From Vision Zero to Target Zero? Leadership in improving road safety


Zero fatalities on our roads. This is the ambitious horizon toward which ever more nations are looking with hope, tempered by caution. And it was also the aim of the conference From Vision Zero to Target Zero? Leadership in improving road safety which we organized in the Spanish Congress of Deputies last December and which was attended by leading road safety specialists from all over the world.

Utopia for some, a real possibility for others, the ‘target zero’ initiative, which emerged in Sweden two decades ago, has been gaining momentum among governments, especially in Europe. Countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Luxembourg and Slovenia have already incorporated it into their respective regulatory frameworks with parliamentary legislation. In Spain, however, target zero has yet to receive legislative endorsement. However, the progress made in our country in recent years has made Spain an international reference in the field of road safety, as acknowledged by the European Union itself. In this context, Fundación MAPFRE organized a conference in the Spanish Congress of Deputies (lower house) last December entitled From Vision Zero to Target Zero? Leadership in improving road safety. Under the auspices of the Road Safety & Sustainable Mobility Committee of the Spanish lower house, the event was attended by leading road safety specialists, both national and international. Speakers at the official opening included the Fundación MAPFRE President, Antonio Huertas, and the Spanish Interior Minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska. “We must raise awareness among all our citizens and those responsible for road safety policies that the only ethically acceptable goal is zero seriously injured victims or fatalities.” With these keynote words, Huertas underscored the event’s prime objective.

Every year 1,350,000 people lose their lives on the world’s roads (one every 24 seconds), which represents more than 95 percent of all transport-related deaths. Traffic accidents are already the leading cause of death among young men. The experts feel these figures are unacceptable. “Imagine if 5,000 planes were to crash every year around the world. It’s totally inconceivable. How then is it possible that we consider so many deaths on our roads politically tolerable? This is a reflection by Matthew Baldwin, Transport and Mobility Deputy Director-General in the European Commission. The 25,000 deaths in 2017, compared to, for example, the 250,000 in Africa, make Europe a standard-bearer in the fight to stem fatal traffic accidents. However, Baldwin insists, these figures are nothing to boast about. “The only acceptable target is zero, because each death is one death too much, leaving behind a grieving family,” he stresses. As the Fundación MAPFRE General Manager, Julio Domingo, points out “the danger with speaking about statistics is that we tend to forget the individuals behind those numbers.”

Safe systems

The ‘vision zero’ philosophy entails a radical change in the approach to tackling road safety issues. “Twenty years ago, cost prevailed over lives or health, and all the responsibility fell on the road users. The notion was: it is the drivers who cost the State millions of euros due to their negligent driving, and punishment was preferred to education or prevention,” recalls Claes Tingvall, professor at the University of Chalmers (Sweden) and the ideological father of vision zero.

The new approach, Veronique Feypell of the ITF-OECD adds, turns the whole road safety management equation on its head from three viewpoints. “The traditional approach aimed to do away with all accidents; nowadays, fatal accidents are the priority. Moreover, policies previously were essentially reactive, whereas today more work is done on prevention through the identification of risks. The final major change is that the responsibility for combating accident rates has ceased to fall entirely on drivers and is now shared with policymakers.”

Alvaro Gómez Méndez, director of the National Road Safety Observatory, prefers to speak of ‘safe systems’ rather than ‘target zero’ to avoid the issue being trivialized. For this expert, infrastructure is a key factor: “Building roads is expensive; making them safe, not so much,” he states. In the same vein, Francisco Menéndez, director of the Galician Infrastructure Agency, advocates building roads “that forgive mistakes and offer drivers a second chance.” His proposal to achieve this goal includes simple measures such as “clear signage or the abolition of deep ditches and unnecessary barriers.”

And Tingvall interjects that the old pretext that road safety proves expensive no longer holds water. “It’s not a question of how much money you spend, but rather investing it in the right way,” he argues. An example of how innovation is significantly reducing serious incidents can be found in the traffic circles at conflictive junctions. Another increasingly widespread measure achieving highly positive results is the “2+1” formula (two lanes in one direction and one in the other, alternatively, with a median strip). “We humans make mistakes on the road,” says Matthew Baldwin. “A safe system should provide for that fallibility factor, offering safer roads and vehicles.”

“We must raise awareness among all our citizens and those responsible for road safety policies that the only ethically acceptable goal is zero seriously injured victims or fatalities,” Antonio Huertas

Managing speed

One fact: 351 pedestrians were knocked down and killed in Spain in 2017. The head of the DGT (traffic authority), Pere Navarro, points out that “the most effective measure for reducing accident rates is to calm the traffic, i.e. reduce speed.” Helmets, speed, distractions, seat belts and alcohol are, according to Navarro, the top five critical factors involved in accidents that produce fatalities.

Educating from school age

Road safety education is another instrument available to the various bodies responsible for overseeing safety on our roads. As Alvaro Gómez underscores, “a safe driver is an adequately trained driver who knows and respects the rules.” This is a process that must begin long before someone is old enough to get behind a steering wheel. Javier Barbero, the Health, Safety and Emergencies delegate of the Madrid City Council, stresses that, in the last year alone, 400,000 children and youngsters received road safety education in this city. The objective, as explained by Sara Hernandez, mayor of Getafe, is that the children themselves then “scold their parents” every time they see them commit an offense, such as running a red light.

Getafe is, precisely, a fine example of a town council actively involved in raising awareness of road safety issues among the whole population. This town of 200,000 inhabitants has shown that target zero is not a pipe dream. Indeed, it can boast not having suffered fatal accidents within its city limits two years in a row: 2016 and 2017.

“We understand vision zero as a methodology and a philosophy shared by the whole city,” is the view of its mayor. To stimulate such citizen participation, our town council launched a series of measures like letting the neighbors themselves decide the location of a mobile radar speed detector. The involvement of the municipal police is key and, in that sense, the “pedagogical or symbolic fines” are really hitting home. These entail the offender being informed of the possible physical consequences of an accident.

El problema de las ciudades

Worldwide, 40 percent of fatal traffic accidents occur in the urban environment. Maybe that is why cities have become the focal point for innovation insofar as road safety is concerned. The U.S. city of Boston has placed the emphasis on speed, through an ambitious awareness campaign entitled: “Speed really matters”, as well as bringing public transport closer to all households. As for Barcelona, it has become the European city with the largest number of motorcycles per capita, already accounting for 22.2 percent of the city’s vehicles. The Catalan capital has adopted the vision zero principle by incorporating priorities such as designing an urban space suitable for the elderly, one of the groups most affected by fatal accidents.

The machinery is up and running, because, as Antonio Huertas, president of Fundación MAPFRE, points out “victims associations, countries, regional administrations and cities, companies, foundations and institutions all over the world have said ‘enough is enough’ and are tackling the situation.”

Matthew Baldwin
Deputy Director-General of Mobility and Transport in the European Commission

“We can’t afford to deter people from commuting to work by bike because it’s too dangerous”

At the head of the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport in the European Commission since 2016, Matthew Baldwin had previously held a range of responsibilities within the field of aviation, also within the EU institutions. This experience in a sector historically characterized by adopting extreme safety measures undoubtedly makes this UK national especially determined to combat a problem, that of the deaths and serious accidents on our roads, which he unequivocally classifies as an ‘epidemic’.

Is it utopian to speak of zero road deaths?
Every year, more than 1,350,000 people die in traffic incidents, so we run the very real risk of accepting that it is indeed a utopia. We have to take this step by step, progressively introducing measures we know actually work so as to reach that target zero. In the EU, we have achieved 50 percent improvements between 2000 and 2010, so we know that the challenge of slashing another 50 percent by 2030 is realistic. We must seek inspiration in other sectors, such as civil aviation, in which the development and rigorous implementation of safety protocols and shared responsibilities are yielding excellent results. Reducing the 25,000 deaths and 135,000 seriously injured we witness annually in Europe cannot be deemed a utopia. This is a situation that has to change.

Is safety a moral issue?
Believe me, I’m no philosopher, but I feel it’s immoral to simply accept that traffic accidents are to blame for such a huge number of deaths. Especially when we are perfectly sure about what needs to be done to make that number fall and even disappear. The European Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc, calls it the “silent killer”, for we know that 25,000 people die each year, but hardly anyone talks about it.

What is the reason for the decline in fatal accidents recorded recently in Europe?
This is a complex issue involving a great many aspects. The first is the dramatic improvement in the safety of motor vehicles, partially promoted by EU legislation. Now is the time to turn to other factors such as speed limits, driving after consuming alcohol and drugs, or distractions. The second aspect to be considered is that of the new mobility patterns, where there have been considerable improvements, yet much remains to be done. The reduction of deaths among vehicle users has not been reflected to the same degree among the most vulnerable of our road users: cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians. Traffic accidents cannot be allowed to mar the so-called ‘active mobility’, which helps reduce pollution and congestion in our cities. We can’t afford to deter people from commuting to work by bike because it’s too dangerous.

Does the economy play a role in traffic accidents?
The economic recession may have simulated an improvement that was not actually real. With less mobility, there were fewer accidents. Now that the European economy is starting to recover, we need to make sure that the number of fatal incidents doesn’t pick up again. An increase in deaths and serious injuries cannot be the price we pay for moving around more.

Every year 1,300,000 people lose their lives on the world’s roads (one every 24 seconds), more than 95 percent of all transport-related deaths.

Claes Tingvall
Professor at the University of Chalmers (Sweden)

“Vision zero applies medical ethics to road safety”

Claes Gustav Tingvall (Karlstad, Sweden, 1953) became interested in road safety at a very young age and, even before he finished his higher studies, he had already started working as a road safety analyst. After completing a doctorate in epidemiology, in the year 1995 he was recruited by his government to head the Road Safety Office. It was there that he realized that what he had learned in the field of medicine and health protection could prove very useful in the fight against fatal accidents on the road. In 1997 his ideas gave rise to ‘vision zero’, a revolutionary new approach to road safety, which today has spread throughout the world.

‘Vision Zero’ was born two decades ago in Sweden. Was it well received?
We had to overcome many barriers. In Sweden, speaking of ‘vision zero’ was complicated, because we are rational and we don’t like approaches that are too ‘optimistic’. What’s more, at that time any investment in safety had to be well justified from an economic point of view. We felt that life and health should always be the priority, that this was a red line that couldn’t be crossed when designing policies. The people planning and managing the budgets found this message hard to comprehend.

A doctor had to come and explain it to them
Vision zero transfers much of the responsibility to system administrators such as those responsible for our roads or cities. These bodies must be active in the decision-making process within their respective areas in order to try to reduce fatalities. This is a philosophy which, for example, nobody disputes in the field of medicine. If a doctor detects that something works poorly and is in a position to improve it, he goes ahead; it’s that simple. In a certain way, vision zero transfers medical ethics to the field of road safety.

But your ideas reached the Swedish Parliament
A new minister who had previously worked on occupational health and safety issues had arrived. She therefore grasped the notion quickly and wanted to analyze it further. I had a somewhat naive vision and did not really understand the kind of forces I was up against. Had it not been for that minister, the project would have died. But she saved it. She was really brave bringing Vision Zero before the Parliament. Not a single party voted against it.

Is avoiding fatalities expensive?
Saving lives is cheap if you act intelligently and implement science and innovation. And if you dare try things that have never before been done. Governments that have not assimilated that culture say: “we want to help drivers keep driving.” But if the car goes off the road or invades the opposite lane, they think it’s not their problem, but rather the driver’s, the one who has done something wrong. Our approach is: instead of simply continuing the struggle to reduce the number of accidents, let’s also start designing a more ‘friendly’, accident-free type of roads. Measures such as removing barriers, protecting trees with impact absorbers wherever necessary, or introducing traffic circles are relatively easy to implement and have an immediate effect. And if implemented right at the road design stage, they may entail a one percent increase in the overall cost, or even less.