Guiding Approaches to Road Safety

What are best practice road safety programs?

Significant changes in the approach to road safety initiatives have occurred during the last two decades that have shifted the focus from a reactive approach (i.e., fixing problems) to a more holistic, proactive approach that emphasizes prevention initiatives.

Road safety strategies have traditionally focused on promoting adherence to road rules through education and training, legislation or regulation, and enforcement. Although these strategies are worthy, they fail to acknowledge the importance of planning and design, infrastructure, and systemic issues that influence the safe conduct and behaviour of people who use the roads.

To overcome the inherent limitations of these methods, many leading approaches to road safety have emerged that acknowledge the distinct components of road safety (i.e., behaviour, vehicle design, road infrastructure) and aim to integrate them to create a more comprehensive problem-solving strategy.

This module describes those leading approaches and highlights some of the fundamental principles associated with each of them, including:

  • Decade of Action for Road Safety 2021-2030. This Global Plan of Action was developed by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Regional Commissions as a guiding document to support the implementation of the Decade of Action 2021-2030 and its objectives. The target is to reduce road traffic deaths and injuries by at least 50% during that period.
  • Vision Zero or Towards Zero Deaths. Vision Zero is an ambitious and aspirational vision that all traffic fatalities and severe injuries can be eliminated, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all road users. The foundation of this approach is that life and health can never be exchanged for other societal benefits. Human life and health are paramount and take priority over mobility and other objectives in the road traffic system.
  • Safe System Approach. This approach is based on the belief that road users are human and crashes are always likely to happen even though there is a continuing focus on prevention. The Safe System Approach is the process through which Vision Zero can be achieved, by providing a powerful platform for the development, adoption and implementation of a comprehensive and integrated road safety strategy.

Vision Zero and Safe System approaches are essential to improve road safety, and these can be supported by programs such as:

  • Active Transportation. This approach encompasses any form of human-powered transportation, including walking, cycling, using a wheelchair, in-line skating or skateboarding. It might also include slow-moving farm equipment or horses and buggies in rural environments. There are many ways to engage in active transportation whether it is walking to the bus stop or cycling to school or work.
  • Healthy Communities. These initiatives are multi-sectoral collaborations that integrate social, economic and environmental goals to benefit the whole community and strengthen community capacity to promote and sustain health.

Each of these approaches is described in more detail below, and links to appropriate resources and examples of practice are shared.

All communities are unique; large and small, urban and rural. While the principles for effective road safety programs are all similar, the differences are in the specific road safety issues that have been identified. Addressing issues in small and rural areas is referenced specifically in this Transport Canada report.1

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What is Vision Zero and Towards Zero Deaths?

Vision Zero is an ambitious and aspirational vision that all traffic fatalities and severe injuries can be eliminated, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all road users. The foundation of this approach is that life and health can never be exchanged for other societal benefits. Human life and health are paramount and take priority over mobility and other objectives in the road traffic system.

Over the past few years, several Canadian provinces and municipal jurisdictions have adopted a Vision Zero approach. While this is an aspirational and worthy goal, generally current business models require significant modification in order to achieve the Vision.

Road agencies in Canada are increasingly developing and using sophisticated prediction tools, and safety decisions are based on evidence and intelligence, which is usually data collected after collisions have occurred. Blackspots and high collision/risk areas are identified for treatment and those that can show the best return on investment are usually funded and implemented.

Conversely, the European approach to Vision Zero accepts that road crashes, while predictable, do have an element of randomness to them in that neither the exact time nor place of the next crash can be known. In other words, improving known blackspots, installing guard rails or shoulder/centreline rumble strips at targeted locations only (based on a benefit/cost analysis) does not remove the risk of drivers running off the road elsewhere along the corridor. This means that the solution, then, is to implement the measure along the whole length of the corridor, whether crashes have occurred there previously or not.

In addition, the focus of many of the traditional approaches has emphasized adjustments to the behaviour of road users through enforcement and education programs. While these programs are required to provide knowledge about road regulations to road users, within Vision Zero much greater effort is directed more towards designers of road systems and the road environment.

However, a paradigm shift is required to truly support the Vision Zero approach. Embracing this vision relies on the adoption of a Safe System approach whereby a chain of responsibility includes all system designers, legislators, road planners and builders, road users, the automotive industry, and professional drivers to name but a few. All of these partners should be included in the development and implementation of the Safe System approach. Training and education for these partners is required to successfully implement it throughout a jurisdiction.

In addition, a strong road safety culture must be cultivated. The public health imperative behind Vision Zero is also clear: increasing the safety of our streets to not only saves lives, but also to make it easier and more enticing for people to engage in daily physical activity by walking and biking.

Toward Zero Deaths (TZD)

Toward Zero Deaths is the highway safety vision in the United States. This national highway safety strategy advocates for eliminating serious injuries and deaths and is considered by proponents to be the only acceptable target for the nation, its families and its citizens. One person dies every 14 minutes in a road traffic crash in the United States.2  Over the course of a lifetime, most people are impacted by the consequences of road traffic crashes affecting themselves, family, friends, or colleagues. 

Led by the TZD Steering Committee, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) provides a platform of consistency for state agencies, private industry, national organizations and others to develop safety plans that prioritize road safety culture and promote the national TZD vision. Toward Zero Deaths: A National Strategy on Highway Safety3 is a data-driven effort focused on identifying and creating opportunities for changing American highway safety culture. The effort focuses on developing strong leadership and champions in organizations that can directly impact highway safety through engineering, enforcement, education, emergency medical services (EMS), policy, public health, communications, and other sectors. The national strategy should be utilized as a guide and framework by safety stakeholder organizations to enhance current national, state and local safety planning and implementation efforts. The intent is to develop a mechanism for bringing together a broader range of highway safety stakeholders to work toward institutional and cultural changes.

One of the most significant priorities is to change American attitudes toward highway safety. There are already programs and technologies that can result in substantial reductions in fatalities; however, those benefits will not be realized as long as the public and elected officials are not willing to pass laws or take required actions to implement them. Consequently, the national strategy has two tiers: Cultural Change and Building the Foundation of Safety which emphasize bringing about cultural changes and strengthening leadership while improving the effectiveness of current activities.

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What is the Safe System Approach?

As road users are human, crashes are always likely to happen despite continued emphasis on prevention. The Safe System approach recognizes that there are limits to the capacity of the human body to survive various crash types above certain speeds of impact. It places a priority on systematically addressing major factors involved in specific crash types to achieve substantial road trauma reduction benefits over time.

The Safe System approach is aspirational. It seeks over time (perhaps during 20 to 30 years or more) to create a safe operating road and street transportation system in which deaths and serious injuries are eliminated.

Fatal crash outcomes usually depend upon several interactive factors that lead to death. Stakeholders must consider the role that all the elements play in a fatal outcome, including the road and roadside, the vehicle, the speed limit and behaviour of the road users involved.

A logical framework, which examines these road safety elements and their interactions, is essential to enable practitioners to develop their thinking and understanding around risk and potential countermeasures. It creates a more readily understood explanation to the wider community of road safety risks and their potential treatment.

The Safe System approach provides this framework. It is derived from the work of the Swedish Road Authority and Road Safety Agencies in the Netherlands and has been adopted as the basis for road safety activities in many countries.

Source: Transportation Association of Canada, Vision Zero and the Safe System Approach: A Primer for Canada

The Safe System approach aims to minimize the severity of injury and is based on the premise that road users should not die because of system failings. The basic premise is that any road user should not be subject to a crash of such severity that they are seriously injured or killed, when:

  • 5-star driver  (obeying the law, sober and not distracted),
  • is driving a 5-star vehicle,
  • on a 5-star road and roadside,
  • with a 5-star speed limit for the crash risk on that section of road. In addition, no one should die as a result of a simple mistake or error of judgement.

It assumes:

  • crash analysis and ongoing development of an improved understanding of crash causes is a mainstream and continuing activity of road safety agencies;
  • adequate road rules to provide safe travel and the necessary enforcement of those rules to achieve high levels of road user compliance are in place (both areas of great opportunity);
  • an adequate driver licensing system exists; and,
  • an informed and aware community is very supportive of the parameters required to achieve and maintain an increasingly safe road transport system.

In essence, this approach challenges those who design road safety systems to achieve a balance across three key factors in the road environment (i.e., the road and roadside safety; the travel speed as influenced by speed limits; and, the primary and secondary safety features of vehicles) in order to achieve safe conditions that result in non-fatal crash outcomes.

However, it also anticipates that there are many other system designers beyond road and vehicle engineers who influence the safe use of the road environment, and who also carry a major responsibility for safer, survivable outcomes.

Some examples include:

  • legislators/regulators/enforcement agencies who are expected to identify unsafe but currently legal behaviours and convince the public and elected representatives over time to implement new compliance measures to create a safer road environment for road users;
  • employers providing vehicles (both light passenger and heavy commercial) for use by their staff and requiring a range of driving tasks as part of employment contracts;
  • road trauma agencies providing onsite and hospital care;
  • licensing authorities seeking to improve the safety of licensed drivers; and,
  • road safety agencies, road users themselves and local road safety groups in the community who provide public education and information (effectively the “users manual” guidance) for operating within the system.

This is not to suggest all the answers are known. It is equally imperative to continuously ask and investigate what can be done (and what would a community be prepared to do) to address unacceptable, unsafe behaviours by a small number of road users whose unsafe behaviours impact the majority of responsible road users. This includes, for example, people engaging in impaired driving (alcohol, drugs and fatigue), speeding, distracted driving and disobeying other road rules. At the same time, communities seek to reduce the risks that face young, novice drivers in their first year of driving, as well as effective measures to better understand and counter driver distraction.

The introduction of a Safe System approach provides a powerful platform for development, adoption and implementation of a road safety strategy.

What are the principles of a Safe System approach?

  • Humans make errors.
  • Humans are vulnerable to injury.
  • Responsibility is shared.
  • No death nor serious injury is acceptable.
  • Proactive or preventative approach is more effective compared to a reactive approach.

Traditional Approach versus Safe Systems Approach4

Traditional Approach

Safe System Approach

Focus on crashes
Aim to reduce risk of crashes
Focus on injuries
Aim to eliminate death and serious injury
Road user has primary responsibilitySystem designer has primary responsibility
Change individual road user behaviourChange the environment (safe roads, safe vehicles, safe speeds) – the system is designed according to human capability and human tolerance to crash forces
Safety is “optimized” once mobility and accessibility objectives have been achievedSafety is a fixed parameter with threshold levels that cannot be exceeded – mobility and accessibility are variables within this framework
Roads are made as safe as reasonably practicalRoads are self-explaining and forgiving of mistakes such that road users are protected from crash forces that exceed human biomechanical injury thresholds

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What are the elements of a Safe System approach?

1. Better Understanding of Crashes and Risks

Fundamental to the Safe System Approach is the identification of risks that confront road users.  It is also important to develop and gain agreement on the best set of countermeasures and an understanding of all the stakeholders.

2. Legislation and Enforcement

Road traffic legislation is a critical element in the drive to improve road safety. Firstly, it establishes the institutions required to administer various parts of the road system and allocates them specific duties and functions. Secondly, it sets safety and other standards with which vehicle owners, drivers, vehicles and infrastructure must comply. The third role of legislation is to regulate compliance with standards.

The non-compliance of road safety elements of any traffic law must be identified and seen by the general motoring public as an anti-social act.

3. Admittance to the System – Licensing

The foundation of a Safe System Approach is the management of driver licensing and reciprocity through the one driver- one licence- one record approach.  While this topic is generally managed by a higher order of government, the compliance of the laws resides with local enforcement officers and agencies. By supporting road users with information and education, enforcing road rules and building an understanding of road crashes and risk, there is a lot that can be achieved in making road users alert and compliant. A key focus should be on compliance and competence, particularly of high-risk drivers.

4. Education and Information for road users – Cultural Change

To make real progress, which other countries have demonstrated is possible, we need to transform our way of thinking. We need to transform our culture, from a culture that accepts loss of life and limb as an accident, to one in which elected officials, transportation professionals, and individual citizens expect safety, demand safety, and refuse to accept that a very high annual casualty count is a fair price to pay for mobility. Until this happens, many safety measures known to work will remain unimplemented, with their lifesaving potential unrealized. We need to treat road safety with seriousness commensurate with the scope of the problem that it is.

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What are the components of a Safe System approach?

In recent years, the predominant international paradigm that has emerged to treat and reduce the impact of human trauma from road collisions is a systems perspective. This approach has become known as a Safe System approach. What it means, quite simply, is that it is essential to reduce the impact on human trauma through multiple measures involving:

  • Land use planning – Road safety policy should be integrated into city and urban planning.
  • Safe roads – Infrastructure should be predictable and forgiving of mistakes. In rural areas this may mean the introduction of rumble strips and other measures to reduce the incidence of head-on or run-off-road crashes.
  • Improved mobility choices – Fostering a range of safe and comfortable transportation choices to reduce the number of people travelling by private motorized vehicle, which in turn reduces the risk of road deaths. Due to the importance of personal vehicle transportation, rural communities may need to balance efforts to increase accessibility and affordability of public transportation with investments in road infrastructure to support the needs of drivers.
  • Safe speeds – Travel speeds suit the function and level of road safety. Speeds may need to be reduced on curves and bends, and definitely at entrances to villages and towns.
  • Safe vehicles – Road users are better protected and crashes are prevented. Slow-moving vehicles should be recognized and marked accordingly in rural environments.
  • Safe road users – Road users comply with road rules and take steps to improve safety by being skilled, competent, alert and unimpaired.
  • Post-crash response – Preventable deaths are avoided and injury severity is limited to reduce suffering.

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What is Active Transportation?

Active transportation refers to any form of human-powered transportation, including walking, cycling, using a wheelchair, in-line skating or skateboarding. This also might include slow moving farm equipment or horses and buggies in a rural environment. There are many ways to engage in active transportation, whether it is walking to the bus stop, or cycling to school/work.

There are numerous benefits associated with active transportation:

  • Health benefits are associated with active transportation which provides an opportunity to be physically active on a regular basis.
  • Social benefits result from active transportation that is accessible to Canadians and increases social interactions.
  • Transportation benefits occur because active transportation reduces road congestion.
  • Environmental benefits can be achieved because active transportation is environmentally-friendly and can contribute to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Economic benefits can be derived from active transportation which reduces spending on gas and parking.

The built environment has a large influence on many public health issues, including physical activity, healthy eating, mental health, health equity, and injury prevention. The built environment encompasses our physical surroundings that we encounter in our daily lives, such as the buildings, parks, schools, road systems, and other infrastructure. Research suggests that those who live in communities with mixed land use (e.g., stores are in walking distance of homes), well-connected street networks, and high residential density are more active compared to those who live in communities where there is automobile dependence.5

According to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute various factors help explain the large reductions in total crashes associated with more active transport:

  • Safer travel conditions – both active safety and travel tend to increase with improved sidewalks, crosswalks, cycling facilities, streetscaping, traffic speed control and education programs.
  • Complementary factors – many factors that encourage walking and cycling, such as connected streets, higher parking and fuel prices, and compact development, also tend to increase traffic safety.6

Relationship between Safe and Active Transportation and Health

Active transportation can support guiding approaches to road safety (Vision Zero, Safe System). In fact, the benefits of the Safe System approach can be a catalyst for a cycle of positive feedback and change. For example, as streets become safer, healthier and more utilized due to improved design, reduced vehicle numbers and speed, and improved air quality, more people will feel comfortable using active modes of transportation such as walking, cycling and taking public transport. Ultimately, this contributes to ongoing improvements and reductions in vehicle-kilometres of travel.

A well-designed Safe System can yield benefits beyond saving lives from road crashes, by increasing the use of active transportation, because:

  • a Safe System Approach to land use can affect trip length and mode.
  • good road design and infrastructure result in safe motorized vehicle speeds and facilitate and encourage walking, cycling and the use of public transit.

Good Practice Example
City of Vancouver7

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What comprises Healthy Communities?

Healthy Communities/Healthy Cities (HC) is an international movement that involves thousands of HC projects, initiatives and networks worldwide. HC takes a holistic view of communities, recognizing that “everything is connected to everything” and “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Healthy Communities initiatives are multi-sectoral collaborations that integrate social, economic and environmental goals to benefit the whole community and strengthen community capacity to promote and sustain health.7

Healthy Communities are based on the following principles:

  • Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.
  • Social, environmental and economic factors are important determinants of human health and are inter-related.
  • People cannot achieve their fullest potential unless they are able to take control of those things which influence or affect their well-being.
  • All sectors of the community are inter-related. This means that sectors need to share their knowledge, expertise and perspectives, and work together to create a healthy community.

Healthy Communities are established through several processes:

  • Equitable community engagement
  • Intersectoral partnerships
  • Political commitment
  • Healthy public policy
  • Asset-based community development

Characteristics of Healthy Communities include:

  • A clean and safe physical environment
  • Peace, equity and social justice
  • Adequate access to food, water, shelter, income, safety, work and recreation for all
  • Adequate access to health care services
  • Opportunities for learning and skill development
  • Strong, mutually supportive relationships and networks
  • Workplaces that are supportive of individual and family well-being
  • Wide participation of residents in decision-making
  • Strong local cultural and spiritual heritage
  • Diverse and vital economy
  • Protection of the natural environment
  • Responsible use of resources to ensure long-term sustainability

In summary, road traffic crashes are predictable and therefore preventable. There is no one single magic-bullet to prevent collisions. In order to combat the problem, close coordination and collaboration is essential, using a holistic and integrated approach crossing many sectors and disciplines, as described in this module.

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  1. Improving Travel Options in Small & Rural Communities – Transport Canada
  2. National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2018). Summary of motor vehicle crashes: 2016 data. (Traffic Safety Facts. Report No. DOT HS 812 580). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  3. Toward Zero Deaths: A National Strategy on Highway Safety. Retrieved from:
  4. Belin, M. Å., Tillgren, P., & Vedung, E. (2012). Vision Zero–a road safety policy innovation. International journal of injury control and safety promotion, 19(2), 171-179.
  5. Public Health Agency of Canada – Built Environment and Active Transportation Retrieved from:
  6. A New Traffic Safety Paradigm November (2018). Retrieved from:
  7. City of Vancouver Active Transportation Policy – Retrieved from:
  8. Healthy communities. Retrieved from:

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