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What Is the Safe System Approach to Roadway Safety?


The Safe System approach promoted by the National Transportation Safety Board seeks to reduce roadway fatalities and shift liability for car crashes from individuals to system designers. While the Safe System significantly reduces fatalities, it makes allocating liability in car accidents more confusing.


What Is the Safe System Approach?

The Safe System approach to roadway safety considers the cause of roadway fatalities in a new way. The traditional approach sees accidents as the problem and human error as the cause of accidents. The new approach focuses on reducing the severity of accidents and fatalities connected to accidents, rather than eliminating accidents themselves. Instead of blaming human error for accidents, the Safe System approach aims to design systems that take human fallibility into account and include safety measures that will reduce the severity of crashes.


Some of the measures that the approach builds into roadway system designs to reduce fatalities are:

  • Separating users in space by separating bike lanes and creating clear zones and pedestrian refuge islands.

  • Separating users in time by allowing different users to use the same space at different times.

  • Increasing attentiveness and awareness by increasing visibility and reducing impairments.

  • Reducing speed, especially in densely populated urban areas, and enforcing the speed limit through automated tools.

  • Reducing impact forces through road infrastructure design by installing guard rails, roundabouts, and crash cushions.

Does the Safe System Approach Work?

The United States has not yet implemented the Safe System approach. However, Sweden implemented the approach in 1997, and has seen a significant decrease in road fatalities. They now have the lowest rate of road fatalities worldwide, at 3 out of 100,000 compared to 12.3 in the United States. Further, fatalities involving pedestrians in Sweden have fallen more than 50% in the last five years. Based on the success Sweden has had with the Safe System Approach, it is likely the United States would see similar success.


Who Is Liable?

While the approach reduces fatalities, it does not eliminate car crashes. However, it does propose to shift liability from individual drivers to system designers. When a driver or passenger is involved in an accident, the Safe System Approach may make recovering damages to pay for medical bills and repairs confusing. Drivers may need the help of a car accident lawyer to determine who is liable and how to recover for injuries.

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