As personal injury and wrongful death trial attorney in Georgia, I have always assumed that highway carnage – auto and truck accidents, injuries and fatalities – were as inevitable as death and taxes. As long as humans are capable of fatal errors, these tragedies would be with us.
But Sweden, where one of my cousins now lives and my Volvo was manufactured, is taking a less fatalistic approach akin to the approach of epidemiologist who seek to root out the causes of illness and injury. Their “Vision Zero” program aims to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2020.
“Vision Zero” relies heavily on adopting a systems-wide approach to road safety, making the entire road system more forgiving to the likely mistakes of drivers. It rejects cost-benefit analysis to set road safety policies and trading human lives for other objectives.
Swedish legislation passed in 1997 adopts these four core principles:
1. human life and health are paramount and take priority over mobility and other objectives of the road traffic system;
2. providers and regulators of the road traffic system share responsibility with drivers and other users;
3. road traffic systems should take account of human fallibility and minimize both the opportunities for errors and the harm done when they occur; and
4. providers and regulators must do their utmost to guarantee the safety of all citizens and cooperate with road users, and all three must be ready to change to achieve safety.
In 1999, the Swedish government established an 11-point program to increase traffic safety, including:
1. special safety measures for the most dangerous roads,
2. better road safety in urban areas through changes in road design and other measures,
3. emphasis on road-user responsibility through such measures as seat belt campaigns,
4. safer conditions for cyclists,
5. improving safety in public transportation services,
6. compulsory use of studded tires in the winter,
7. better utilization of Swedish technology, including automatic in-vehicle speed adjustment systems,
8. greater responsibility placed on traffic systems designers,
9. changes in handling of traffic offenses,
10. expanding the role of voluntary organizations, and
11. studying alternative forms of financing new roads.
Among the specific measures that have been implemented in the program have been:
1. using wire rope barriers to divide undivided main roads to reduce head-on collisions;
2. using barriers on the side of the road to minimize rollovers and off-road crashes with trees;
3. reducing speed limits to reduce impact energy of collisions, setting the limits at 54 mph on major highways, 42 mph on major collectors, 30 mph on other main streets, and 18 mph on local streets;
4. enforcing the limits by cameras and other technologies;
5. installing roundabouts (rotaries) on all types of roads to minimize the number of crashes and the damages caused by side impact collisions at intersections;
6. changing local street design to restrict vehicle movements and give pedestrians and cyclists priority over vehicle traffic through such measures as pedestrian-only precincts, bike paths, and center road refuges; and
7. giving priority to public transportation vehicles and pedestrians on roads.
Another aspect of the program is data analysis. The Swedish equivalent of our US DOT conducts annual evaluations of road user behavior, including drunk driving, speeding, use of seatbelts and other safety equipment in cars, and the use of helmets by cyclists. They also monitor vehicle crashworthiness, emergency services rescue times, and safety opinions of the public, among other things.
Some would say that we American cowboys would never adopt such an approach. Perhaps as a trial lawyer I shouldn’t hope for that, as it would cut into my caseload. However, as a citizen and parent, I hope we draw some lessons that might prevent tragedies affecting people I love.
Ken Shigley, author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice, is a Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, and has been listed as a "Super Lawyer" (Atlanta Magazine), among the "Legal Elite" (Georgia Trend Magazine), and in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers. He practices law at the Atlanta law firm of Chambers, Aholt & Rickard, and has broad experience in catastrophic personal injury, spinal cord injury, wrongful death, products liability, brain injury and burn injury cases. He is also president-elect of the State Bar of Georgia. Ken and This post is subject to our ethical disclaimer.