The Right to Safe Mobility
20th Century Paradigms
The Vision Zero Difference

The Right to Safe Mobility

Section 7 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

Unfortunately this principle is not yet implemented in our transportation policies and practices. It is time that all levels of government recognized their obligation to ensure the right of everyone in Canada to safe passage on our streets, whether they are travelling by car, foot, bicycle or wheelchair. We need to follow other countries in enshrining the rights of active road users, and in recognizing that the only acceptable number of annual deaths and serious injuries on our roads is zero. Like those developed countries that are realizing dramatic reductions in traffic violence, we need to implement the right policies and practices including a mandated share of funding for safe and expedient active transit infrastructure. In short, we need to commit to Vision Zero.

20th Century Paradigms

With Vision Zero thinking the government shoulders full responsibility for road safety. To fully grasp its importance, we first need to understand the shared responsibility paradigm that still holds sway in too many places. One very common paradigm, which first appears in the early 1920s, posits the “three E’s”—engineering, education and enforcement—as the “pillars” (or legs on the stool) of traffic safety thinking.

By the end of the 1920s our city streets were viewed as the domain of motor vehicles, and engineering was mainly focused on the maximization of vehicle throughput—or Level of Service as it was called in engineer-speak. So in the one domain where the bureaucrats did claim direct responsibility, safety was not the primary concern.


1927 poster instructing children to obey the crossing guard and the American Automobile Association.

In two out of three activities—education and enforcement—safety was the main concern, yet the onus was placed firmly on the individual road user. The state adopted a largely adversarial approach to its citizens, haranguing and punishing drivers, and teaching pedestrians and cyclists defensive techniques that would ensure minimal impact on the flow of motor vehicles.

While these measures were extremely effective in establishing roads as the domain of increasingly fast cars and trucks, they did not turn back the rising tide of traffic violence. In recent decades seatbelts and airbags have done a great deal to protect people inside the car, but in places where the old safety paradigms persist there has been little progress in reducing the harm to vulnerable road users.

The Vision Zero Difference

Vision Zero—the name given to the Swedish campaign to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injury—adopts a radically different paradigm of traffic safety, in which the state assumes full responsibility and the focus is on implementing failsafe roads and vehicles. We can see the stirring of this “safe systems” approach in these statements from a remarkable 1946 op-ed  by George Orwell.C1cHJXVVQAASlcqC1brVnoUUAAT947Orwell’s article was an explicit critique of defensive walking and driving campaigns, which he viewed as inherently ineffectual.

The zero tolerance approach to traffic deaths and serious injuries was finally implemented in Europe in the 1990s, under various guises including sustainable safety in the Netherlands and Vision Zero in Sweden.  This video from the home page of the Swedish initiative is an excellent introduction to “safe systems” thinking.

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Sweden’s Vision Zero Initiative has reduced by half thanks to increasingly failsafe roadways and vehicles, in addition to automated enfocement through speeding and red light cameras.

As in the video, true Vision Zero tenets are beautifully summarized in the World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2004). Since I cannot improve on this description I will take the liberty of quoting it at length. What follows is taken from pp. 19-20 of the report in the following PDF.


Vision Zero is a traffic safety policy, developed in Sweden in the late 1990s and based on four elements: ethics, responsibility, a philosophy of safety, and creating mechanisms for change. The Swedish parliament voted in October 1997 to adopt this policy and since then several other countries have followed suit.


Human life and health are paramount. According to Vision Zero, life and health should not be allowed in the long run to be traded off against the benefits of the road transport system, such as mobility. Mobility and accessibility are therefore functions of the inherent safety of the system, not vice versa as it is generally today.


Until recently, responsibility for crashes and injuries was placed principally on the individual road user. In Vision Zero, responsibility is shared between the providers of the system and the road users. The system designers and enforcers—such as those providing the road infrastructure, the car-making industry and the police—are responsible for the functioning of the system. At the same time, the road user is responsible for following basic rules, such as obeying speed limits and not driving while under the influence of alcohol. If the road users fail to follow such rules, the responsibility falls on the system designers to redesign the system, including rules and regulations.

Safety Philosophy

In the past, the approach to road safety was generally to put the onus on the road user. In Vision Zero, this is replaced by an outlook that has been used with success in other fields. Its two premises are that:

  • human beings make errors;
  • there is a critical limit beyond which survival and recovery from an injury are not possible.

It is clear that a system that combines human beings with fast-moving, heavy machines will be very unstable. It is sufficient for a driver of a vehicle to lose control for just a fraction of a second for a human tragedy to occur. The road transport system should therefore be able to take account of human failings and absorb errors in such a way as to avoid deaths and serious injuries. Crashes and even minor injuries, on the other hand, need to be accepted. The important point is that the chain of events that leads to a death or disability must be broken, and in a way that is sustainable, so that over the longer time period loss of health is eliminated.

The limiting factor of this system is the human tolerance to mechanical force. The chain of events leading to a death or serious injury can be broken at any point. However, the inherent safety of the system—and that of the road user—is determined by people not being exposed to forces that go beyond human tolerance. The components of the road transport system—including road infrastructure, vehicles and systems of restraint—must therefore be designed in such a way that they are linked to each other. The amount of energy in the system must be kept below critical limits by ensuring that speed is restricted.

Driving Mechanisms for Change

To change the system involves following the first three elements of the policy. While society as a whole benefits from a safe road transport system in economic terms, Vision Zero relates to the citizen as an individual and his or her right to survive in a complex system. It is therefore the demand from the citizen for survival and health that is the main driving force. In Vision Zero, the providers and enforcers of the road transport system are responsible to citizens and must guarantee their safety in the long term. In so doing, they are necessarily required to cooperate with each other, for simply looking after their own individual components will not produce a safe system. At the same time, the road user has an obligation to comply with the basic rules of road safety.

The quoted section goes on to indicate the main measures in place at time of writing (2004), and it describes the “sustainable safety” approach employed in the Netherlands. The entire 217-page report (PDF), beautifully indexed, remains an excellent primer on road safety worldwide.

For an introduction to safe systems go to our Policies & Practice page, which includes an excellent safe systems video introduction, plus tips Canada’s leading road safety expert.

For more on the intersection of principles and practices see the European Charter of Pedestrians’ Rights (1988), and the Five Pillars of the UN Global Plan for the Decade of Action for Road Safety (2011).

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