Stockholm - Fewer people are killed on the roads in Sweden per head of population than in any other country around the world. It’s an impressive record that begs a question: What is the secret of this Scandinavian road-safety success?
Images of wrecked cars wedged into one another, shattered windscreens and ambulances racing to the scene are familiar from news bulletins all over Europe, North America and beyond. They are rarer in Sweden. Naturally road accidents still occur, but safety awareness is very high.
The Swedish political agenda’s Vision Zero concept aims to achieve a highway system with no fatalities or serious injuries on roads at all. The concept was approved by Sweden’s parliament in 1997.
It seems to be working, since according to the World Health Organization, the road death toll per 100 000 persons in Sweden is just three per 100 000. On German roads by comparison, which are reckoned very safe by world standards, the rate is a statistical 4.7.
Vision Zero’s most important principle is that human life and health are paramount, taking priority over the need for mobility and other objectives of the road traffic system. Providers and regulators of the road traffic system share their responsibility with users
The aim is reduce road fatalities to zero by 2020 at a time when an increasing number of people are using highways.
WHY ARE SWEDISH ROAD SO SAFE?
SPEED LIMITS: Compared with other countries the pace of travel on Swedish roads is relaxed. There is a simple reason for this, says traffic expert Anders Lie of the Swedish Trafikverket authority: “If anything goes wrong, slower hurts less.”
On country roads, drivers are restricted to a blanket speed of 80km/h with an official motorway limit of 120 km/h, although most drive no faster than 110 km/h. It is planned to impose a limit of 40km/h on traffic in all built-up areas and this is already the case in many communities.
SPEED TRAPS: Sweden counts a total of 1500 fixed speed traps, although Lie admitted that only a tenth of these are active at any
given time. “We rely on the trust between citizens and the rest of society. Not many people set out to break the law, said Lie.
As long as drivers adhere to speed limits, most of the cameras record their speeds, but no speeding fines are issued. If traffic is found to be moving faster, the cameras are reactivated and offenders are fined until the average recorded speed on the stretch of road is seen to have dropped. The fines are heavy – between 150 and 250 euros (R2250 and R3750).
“We do not hand out a lot of tickets,” said Lie. The Swedish state does not view the fines as a source of income.
ACCIDENT ANALYSIS: Each fatal accident is analysed by experts to determine the cause: How did the injuries come about? Did the state or the road play a role? Was the car itself to blame. Was the driver travelling too fast? Was the driver wearing a seatbelt? Had he or she consumed alcohol?
“We have seen that we are dealing with ordinary people who commit everyday errors,” said Lie. “An accident can happen to anyone, any day of the week.”
ROAD IMPROVEMENTS: In recent years the Swedes have invested a great deal in their roads. “We are a large country with not many people in it, and we can therefore not spend as much on highways as say the Germans do,” said Lie.
On country roads the carriageways are often separated by physical barriers which are much harder to cross than the traditional white lines marking the road centre. This measure alone has slashed accidents on this type of road by 90 percent.
ANTI-ALCOHOL DRIVE: One in five fatal road accidents in Sweden involves someone at the wheel having consumed alcohol. This problem has proved to be a hard nut to crack, said Lie. Around 1.5 million Swedish motorists a year take a breath test.
A total of 90 000 buses, lorries and taxis are fitted with “alcolocks,” which means the driver cannot start the vehicle without taking a breath test. If the test shows positive, the vehicle will not start.
ONE GLASS OF BEER ONLY: The expert stressed that lowering the legal limit of blood alcohol in Sweden from the common 0.05 per cent to 0.02 per cent has been a boon. In many other countries, a driver could get away with consuming two glasses of beer and still be under the limit. In Sweden one glass of beer is the maximum permitted.
“We have given a clear signal to society as a whole,” said Lie. “Either you drink or you drive.”