Twenty years ago, the Swedish government launched its Vision Zero road safety initiative aimed at eliminating traffic-related fatalities in the country.
Since then, cities around the globe have developed Vision Zero initiatives of their own, customizing the program with goals that include implementing new regulations, redesigning safer streets and using predictive data models to identify the most hazardous traffic zones. Arguably, the most difficult task for these cities has been introducing a cultural change that adopts a pedestrian-first mindset.
In the United States, some of these programs have taken on a regional flavor, with road-sign messaging targeting local drivers. For instance, as CityLab reported earlier this month, Austin, Texas, has applied its “Keep Austin Weird” ethos to highway messaging, rolling out traffic alerts riffing on area legends like Willie Nelson. (One example: “Road Construction Ahead / Please Drive Willie Slow.”)
In 2013, traffic-related fatalities in Sweden hit an all-time low.
Austin is following the lead of several states that have likewise used humor to catch drivers’ attention, including Arizona, Iowa and Massachusetts, Jorge Riveros, division manager at the Austin Transportation Department tells CityLab. Several years ago, a Massachusetts Department of Transportation (Mass DOT) highway sign reading “Use Yah Blinkah” proved a big hit and inspired the Mass DOT to launch a public contest to generate suggestions for new roadway signage.
But can funny signs help prevent traffic fatalities? That’s still unclear. The results of Sweden’s Vision Zero project, however, suggest that the country might be onto something. According to statistics provided by Sweden’s Vision Zero initiative, which is headquartered in Stockholm and run by Business Sweden, a merger of the Swedish Trade Council and Invest Sweden, fatalities involving pedestrians have dropped by nearly 50 percent in the last five years. And while traffic volumes have risen steadily over the last 20 years, traffic deaths have declined. In 2013, traffic-related fatalities in Sweden hit an all-time low, with 264 deaths recorded.
New York City, meanwhile, has seen a 23 percent drop in traffic deaths since it launched its own Vision Zero campaign in 2013. In 2016, the city recorded 229 fatalities, marking the lowest number since the city began tracking this trend, and breaking the previous record of 234 fatalities counted in 2015.
Like Austin and Boston, the Big Apple is no stranger to using unique road signs to drive home the message of safety. Even before the launch of its Vision Zero initiative, the city tried approaches like using haiku on signs near areas that saw frequent accidents.
Signage is just a small part of Vision Zero initiatives, however. According to the Swedish planners who launched the project, the goal is to rethink road safety from the ground up, taking into account factors ranging from driver awareness to vehicle technology to more carefully considered speed limits and improved road designs.
The idea is that while driving and mobility are essential to a functioning society, people are error-prone and will make mistakes. This means that the design of a city’s traffic system must account for and correct these mistakes.
Equally important, or perhaps even more so, is the basic tenet underpinning the initiative: the idea that there must be a tradeoff between safety and mobility, between traffic fatalities and miles traveled.
Or, as the Swedish initiative sums up its philosophy: “No loss of life is acceptable.”
It’s a lofty goal, but a worthy one, and one toward which progress is being made.