Why Sweden has so few road deaths
The Economist, 26 February 2014
year 264 people died in road crashes in Sweden, a record low. Although the
number of cars in circulation and the number of miles driven have both doubled
since 1970, the number of road deaths has fallen by four-fifths during the same
With only three of every
100,000 Swedes dying on the roads each year, compared with 5.5 per 100,000
across the European Union, 11.4 in America and 40 in the Dominican Republic,
which has the world's deadliest traffic, Sweden’s roads have become the world’s
safest. Other places such as New York City are now trying to copy its success.
How has Sweden done it?
reaching a peak in road deaths in the 1970s, rich countries have become much
better at reducing the number of traffic accidents. (Poor countries, by
contrast, have seen an increasing death toll, as car sales have accelerated.)
In 1997 the Swedish parliament wrote into law a "Vision Zero" plan,
promising to eliminate road fatalities and injuries altogether. "We simply
do not accept any deaths or injuries on our roads," says Hans Berg of the
national transport agency. Swedes believe—and are now proving—that they can
have mobility and safety at the same time.
has played the biggest part in reducing accidents. Roads in Sweden are built
with safety prioritised over speed or convenience. Low
urban speed-limits, pedestrian zones and barriers that separate cars from bikes
and oncoming traffic have helped. Building 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) of
"2+1" roads—where each lane of traffic takes turns to use a middle
lane for overtaking—is reckoned to have saved around 145 lives over the first
decade of Vision Zero. And 12,600 safer crossings, including pedestrian bridges
and zebra-stripes flanked by flashing lights and protected with speed-bumps,
are estimated to have halved the number of pedestrian deaths over the past five
years. Strict policing has also helped: now less than 0.25% of drivers tested
are over the alcohol limit. Road deaths of children under seven have
plummeted—in 2012 only one was killed, compared with 58 in 1970.
the Swedes ever hit their "zero" target? Road-safety campaigners are
confident that it is possible. With deaths reduced by half since 2000, they are
well on their way. The next step would be to reduce human error even further,
for instance through cars that warn against drink-driving via built-in
breathalysers. Faster implementation of new safety systems, such as warning
alerts for speeding or unbuckled seatbelts, would also help. Eventually, cars
may do away with drivers altogether. This may not be as far off as it sounds:
Volvo, a car manufacturer, will run a pilot programme of driverless cars in
Gothenburg in 2017, in partnership with the transport ministry. Without
erratic drivers, cars may finally become the safest form of transport.