Reaching Zero, from Helsinki to Hoboken

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

This is the last post in a three-part series examining the safety of vulnerable road users, as new federal data show a rise in traffic deaths among motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians last year. You can read the first two posts here and here.

I just got back from Helsinki, Finland, where I attended the International Transportation Safety Association’s annual meeting.

I am amazed at the Finn’s approach to road safety, especially their focus on road design and infrastructure that separates and protects pedestrians and bicyclists from each other and road traffic, which has enabled them to achieve a safety feat in their capital city that people in the United States still consider impossible: zero pedestrian deaths.

Pedestrian crossing sign in Helsinki

A Tale of Two Countries

The public health crisis on U.S. roads is devastating and getting worse. People at the greatest risk are vulnerable road users, which includes anyone lacking the protection of a vehicle in the event of a crash, such as bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians.

In fact, bicyclist deaths were up 5% over 2020 levels, while motorcyclist deaths increased 9% over the same period, according to 2021 estimates recently released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). But the most astonishing take-away is that pedestrian deaths soared 13% to 7,342 lives lost in 2021.

That means, every single day last year, more than 20 families had to plan a funeral because their loved one was killed while walking, running, or rolling on our roads.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not in Finland.

For a fair international comparison, we can look to the estimated 2019 roadway death rate provided by the World Health Organization. Using this apples-to-apples measure, it’s easy to see how much more dangerous our roads are.

For every 100,000 people in each country, less than four died on Finland’s roads in 2019. That’s the same year Finland’s capital of Helsinki recorded zero pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities.

In the U.S.? Over a dozen people died on our roads for every 100,000 — more than triple Finland’s death rate.

Lessons from Helsinki to Hoboken

Many villages, towns, and cities around the world are having incredible success in saving the lives of vulnerable road users, including here in the United States. And they all have one thing in common.

Whether we’re talking about Helsinki or Hoboken, New Jersey (which has achieved zero traffic deaths for four consecutive years!), these communities all embrace the Safe System approach.

Far from a new fad, the Safe System approach derives from the Vision Zero movement in the 1990’s in Sweden, when it was called Vision Zero. It’s a philosophy or way of thinking, not a single action or “quick fix.” The core belief is that even one roadway death or serious injury is too many. 

It’s so successful that Protect Vulnerable Road Users Through a Safe System Approach is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. 

Places that successfully eliminate traffic deaths through the Safe System approach understand that all parts of society share the responsibility for roadway safety:

  • This includes government workers in agencies at the local, state, and federal levels that design and build our roads — and set and enforce the speed limits.
  • It includes the people who make life-and-death decisions every day at companies that manufacture vehicles. Decisions like which safety technology comes standard and how to market new features ethically, among others.
  • It includes emergency responders who arrive on-scene following a crash, from the firefighter to the tow truck driver and everyone in between.
  • And it includes individual road users, who must make safe choices every time they walk, run, bike, drive, or roll.

The Safe System in Practice

What does a Safe System look like in practice? Here’s how Hoboken and Helsinki are bringing the concepts of safe streets, safe vehicles, safe speeds, safe road users, and post-crash care to life.

One of the biggest opportunities to move the needle on safety across the U.S. lies in safe vehicles. The NTSB has made many recommendations to NHTSA that, once implemented, will save lives by making new cars safer for people outside the vehicle. Here are a few of our recommendations:

  • Develop test criteria for vehicle designs that reduce injuries to pedestrians, which NTSB has recommended since 2017 — and has been a reality in Europe since 1997.
  • Test and require new cars to be equipped with technologies that prevent collisions with vulnerable road users, such as pedestrian automated emergency braking. This is something our European counterparts have been doing since 2016, and which we’ve recommended since 2018.
  • Incentivize vehicle manufacturers and consumers to adopt intelligent speed adaptation systems (ISA) by including ISA in the New Car Assessment Program. Even though NTSB recommended this back in 2017, Europe is again ahead of us: ISA systems in passenger vehicles will be mandatory in the European Union starting next month.

For even more NTSB recommendations aimed at saving the lives of vulnerable road users, check out the NTSB’s special investigation report on pedestrian safety and my earlier post on bicyclist safety.

Zero: A Bold — But Achievable — Goal

If you think Helsinki or Hoboken are outliers when it comes to eliminating roadway deaths, think again.

This interactive map shows places all over the world that have done it — many for several years in a row, including here in the U.S. (You can change the map language to English by clicking the flag in the top-right corner.)

The DEKRA Vision Zero Map records all cities with over 50,000 inhabitants that have gone at least one calendar year without traffic deaths in built-up areas since 2009.

To be sure, zero is a bold goal. But it’s not impossible. The current world leader is Siero, Spain, which has had zero roadway fatalities for over a decade.

That’s a safety record worth celebrating…and stopping at nothing to emulate. The NTSB will continue to push our safety partners at NHTSA, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and in state and local governments to implement our recommendations to move our country farther along the road to zero.

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