Safety Matters: The Safe System Approach: How to Achieve Zero Deaths


The Safe System Approach: How to Achieve Zero Deaths

Everyone is familiar with the terms “Towards Zero Deaths,” “Road to Zero,” “Vision Zero” – but what do those terms really mean? They all imagine a world where our family, friends and neighbors don’t have to die on the roadways. In 2019 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that there were over 36,000 traffic fatalities and over 6,200 pedestrian fatalities across the country. Here in Connecticut, the preliminary estimate for 2020 fatalities is 308. Although it may seem daunting to reduce those numbers to zero, it can be done. One of the ways we can accomplish this is by implementing the Safe System Approach.

The Safe System Approach has six basic principles as its foundation. It starts with the simple belief that death and serious injury on our roadways is unacceptable and that humans will make mistakes. These are statements that I think we can all agree on. Nobody should die or be seriously injured simply trying to get to work or school or home to their family. Humans are fallible and often make poor decisions; driving while distracted, while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, speeding and reckless driving can all lead to a serious or fatal crash. The reason crashes result in serious injuries or death is because humans are vulnerable, which is the third principle of the Safe System Approach. People have a limited ability to withstand and survive the impacts of a severe crash.

The fourth principle of the Safe System Approach recognizes that responsibility for safety is shared by many. Vehicle manufacturers, law enforcement, those who plan, design, build and maintain the roadways, emergency service personnel and the users of the system – each plays an important part in safety, but none of them can achieve it alone. Principle five is that safety is proactive. In order to achieve zero deaths and reduce serious injuries, we cannot wait for crashes to occur before we figure out why and how we could have avoided them. There are many tools available to help identify risk factors and mitigate them before a crash occurs.

Finally, the last principle of the Safe System Approach is that redundancy is crucial. This means that all the elements of a safe system work together but if there is a weakness in one, the others may be enhanced to compensate for that weakness. An example would be if a driver speeds (weakness), the roadway is designed in such a way that would reduce that driver’s potential for a serious crash (compensation).

In conjunction with these principles are the five elements of a safe system. These are directly related to the principles but target the specific areas listed below.

  • Safe Road Users – Users are all those who drive, walk, cycle, ride mass transit or use an alternative mode. Educating them and encouraging them to do so safely reduces the potential for crashes.
  • Safe Vehicles – Advancements in vehicle technology assist drivers to reduce crashes and protect drivers if a crash occurs.
  • Safe Speeds – Humans are no match for high-speed crashes. This is especially true for pedestrians and cyclists. Reduction in speed directly correlates to less severe crashes and fewer fatalities.
  • Safe Roads – Roads designed and built to account for human error result in fewer crashes and when they do occur, they are less severe.
  • Post-Crash Care – Emergency personnel responding quickly and efficiently reduces the possibility of a crash resulting in a fatality. This element also includes traffic incident management and crash investigation.

These principles and related elements of a Safe System Approach create a holistic approach of addressing safety by making it everyone’s responsibility and not placing the burden on one part of the system. Many of us are already implementing certain elements of this approach, but all of us should be using the Safe System Approach in order to get every one of Connecticut’s road users to their destination safely.

For more information and assistance with local road safety in your community, contact Melissa Evans, Safety Circuit Rider, at


About Connecticut T2 Center

The Training & Technical Assistance Center at UCONN provides education and technical assistance to members of Connecticut's Transportation and Public Safety Community, including municipal public works directors, street and road maintenance superintendents and staff, city and town engineers, Connecticut Department of Transportation employees, transportation planners and law enforcement professionals serving as legal traffic authorities. We are Connecticut's LTAP Center
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