In 2015, over a million people lost their lives in road-related incidents around the world, according to a report by the World Health Organization. Road accidents remain the leading cause of death among young people aged 15 and 29, costing governments globally about 3% of GDP every year.

Number of people who die from road traffic accidents per year.
Image: World Health Organisation

“Despite this massive – and largely preventable – human and economic toll,” the WHO said, “action to combat this global challenge has been insufficient.”

But while some nations have resorted to public safety campaigns extolling sticking to speed limits, wearing seatbelts and not drinking and driving, Sweden has gone a step further.

Zero tolerance

In 1997 Sweden introduced the Zero Vision policy that aimed to reduce the number of road-accident fatalities to zero by 2020. Reducing the danger required physical changes on the roads and new policies to enforce traffic laws.

There are now more roundabouts, fewer intersections, and vehicles cannot turn where people cross streets. More pedestrian bridges have been built, bicycles are separated from oncoming traffic and strict policing has reduced the number of drink-driving offences.

Since the scheme began, road deaths have almost halved: 270 people died in road accidents in Sweden in 2016. Twenty years earlier the figure was 541.

Compare that to the United States, where 41,100 people died in road-related incidents in 2017, according to Federal Highway Administration statistics. A look back to 1964 shows that 45,645 people died as a result of road accidents that year. That’s not much of an improvement in more than half a century, although it should be set against the context of population growth and an increase in the number of vehicles on the road.

A global example

While Sweden’s progress looks dramatic, it has struggled to meet its goal. The target date for zero deaths has been pushed back from 2020 to 2050.

Despite this, the Swedish example has been held up as a model by many governments and states. Parts of Canada, Norway, various US states and some European Union countries have all experimented with variations of the Vision Zero scheme.

If the wider world can replicate the progress made in Sweden, many lives will be saved, and there are already signs of improvement in some regions.

Many experts point to more rigorous tests for new drivers in Europe as one reason why its roads are safer than those of other countries. Some 25,300 people lost their lives in accidents on roads in EU member states in 2017, but that was almost 15,000 fewer than in the US.

It can cost more than $1,800 to learn to drive in Sweden and can be even more expensive elsewhere in Europe. In contrast, many Americans can get licences inexpensively and without the need for much tuition.

Changing the mindset

In Sweden, one of the biggest changes may be how road deaths were perceived. In a 2014 interview, one of the country’s leading road safety strategists, Matts-Åke Belin, said the hardest people to convince that Vision Zero was worth trying had been political economists.

“For them it is very difficult to buy into “zero”,” Belin said. “In their economic models, you have costs and benefits, and although they might not say it explicitly, the idea is that there is an optimum number of fatalities. A price that you have to pay for transport.”

Changing that kind of mindset may be a crucial part of ensuring that the number of road deaths falls globally.