A Safe System Approach to Traffic Safety Roundtable

By Member Thomas Chapman

An estimated 42,000 traffic deaths occurred in 2020. This is an alarming number.

From 2014 to 2019, overall traffic fatalities increased by 10 percent.  Over the same period, however, annual traffic deaths among vulnerable road users (pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists) jumped from 9,935 to 12,062— a 21 percent increase. If you only look at pedestrian and bicyclist deaths, there was a 25 percent increase in fatalities from 2014 to 2019. So, disproportionately, increasing numbers of vulnerable road users are being killed on our roadways. We must do more to reverse this upward trend.

In April, we adopted our 2021–2022 Most Wanted List. The list includes a new safety item, Protect Vulnerable Road Users Through a Safe System Approach. With traffic fatalities trending in the wrong direction, it’s appropriate to evaluate how we approach roadway safety. At the NTSB, we’re focusing our attention on a Safe System approach.

How is a Safe System approach different?

Traditionally, as we have tried to mitigate and prevent crashes by changing individual human behavior, we’ve sought to convert everyone into perfect drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists. We try to reduce injury severity by increasing occupant protection and improving crashworthiness. We tend to put roadway safety in the hands of each individual road user, rather than taking a holistic approach. We’ve seen tremendous safety improvements through the years, such as developing safer vehicles, and we have seen a significant decline in motor vehicle occupant deaths over decades. But the overall trend is not downward, especially not for those outside of motor vehicles.

A Safe System approach focuses on injury severity by seeking to eliminate death and serious injury. In exchange, some less severe crashes are more tolerable. Instead of trying to make us all perfect drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists, a Safe System approach assumes that we all make mistakes and emphasizes methods to prevent these mistakes from causing deaths or serious injuries. Human vulnerabilities are accommodated by managing kinetic energy through engineering, design, and policy. We also acknowledge that road safety is a shared responsibility among road users, designers, planners, engineers, corporations, and policy makers.

That’s why, next week, we’re hosting an NTSB MWL Roundtable: A Safe System Approach to Traffic Safety. We recognize the need to educate others about what the Safe System approach is and to emphasize that Safe System—which underpins Vision Zero policies and initiatives—can’t be merely a slogan; it must integrate all proven safety countermeasures. Our virtual roundtable will highlight the key elements of the Safe System approach and will kick off our safety advocacy actions on this issue for the next two years.

What should you expect from the roundtable?

We have a very strong lineup of panelists planned for the event. An expert from Sweden— the birthplace of Vision Zero—will discuss the origin, history, and principles of a Safe System approach. Other panelists will provide national, state, and local perspectives on implementing a Safe System approach, and we’ll discuss the elements of such an approach—safe roads, vehicles, road users, and speed, as well as post-crash care. Member Jennifer Homendy, along with NTSB staff from the offices of Highway Safety and Research and Engineering, will also share their perspectives.

Want to learn more about the roundtable?

Visit our event page, A Safe System Approach to Traffic Safety (ntsb.gov). The event is open to the public. Register for the roundtable. You can also submit a question for the panelists by writing to NTSBSafeSystemRoundtable@ntsb.gov.

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