Top 10 Safe System implementation pitfalls, and suggestions for how to avoid them

While Safe System concepts offer many new ways of advancing injury prevention, many agencies continue to fail to see change. Here are ten common pitfalls in practice, as well as alternative approaches for building a safe system.

  1. Do more of the same to address traffic injury and expect different results. Approaching road trauma the same way we have for decades will not lead to different results. If we are looking to impart systems change, we need to do things differently.
    Safe System alternative: Coordinate with traditional and nontraditional partners and community members to discern recurring patterns and mindsets that keep the status quo alive, such as placing full responsibility on individuals for mistakes. Work with community organizations, specialists, and decision-makers to examine the contexts, systems, and norms that perpetuate road user mistakes and injuries. Locate those norms and policies (i.e., leverage points) that will disrupt the unfolding of these mistakes and injuries.
  2. Set uninspiring and unethical safety goals in your safety plans. Too many states and municipalities set traffic injury and fatality goals that simply track their current trajectories, or try to mask lackluster safety performance by measuring safety in terms of fatalities per capita or per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. In fact, some states develop goals in their state highway safety plans to increase serious and fatal road injuries.
    Safe System alternative: Set specific, measurable, aggressive-yet-achievable, realistic, time-bound, inclusive, and equitable objectives. Envision the desired future the community needs and wants and employ backcasting to identify ways to arrive at this desired future.
  3. Talk about crashes as isolated, unpreventable accidents that delay traffic. This is a common means of reporting on crashes in the media, a means that can undermine support for improving safety.
    Safe System alternative: Frame crashes as related to other crashes in a locale and across time. Speak to how serious crashes are preventable through common sense measures that benefit everyone.
  4. Design roads completely separately from land use. This occurs when a roadway’s mobility function serves as the primary focus of design, and can result in the creation of environments where higher vehicle speeds and traffic volumes occur in areas with roadside development and crossing movements, a combination known to result in preventable injury and death.
    Safe System alternative: Examine the current—and future—developmental context for the roadway to identify likely road users and user movements and design the street to safely accommodate them. Keep in mind that land use means different things in different regions; for example, land use in an urban context is totally different from land use in a rural setting.
  5. Equate shared responsibility with equal responsibility. Too often, we see a person riding a bike as being just as responsible for theirs and others’ safety as a federal agency that regulates the design of the vehicles that share the road space with the person on a bike.
    Safe System alternative: Understand that responsibility varies according to the degree of power system actors possess to change the system.
  6. Base land use and transportation decisions on forecasted traffic. Conventional travel demand models are focused largely on estimating future travel demand and identifying locations where congestion is projected to occur in the future, presuming thing remain the same. This amounts to dragging the past and present into the future and often creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, induce traffic by adding more travel lanes to a road, then point to the increase in traffic as “proof” the road expansion was warranted. Forecasting reacts to what is happening rather than working to shape what happens.  
    Safe System alternative: Traffic forecasts are nothing more than an extension of the past. They are not a vision for a desirable future. Plan for what you want to see more and less of in the future.
  7. Rely on only one agency to conduct serious crash investigations. As it stands, law enforcement agencies are largely responsible for reporting on and investigating crashes.
    Safe System alternative: Form cross-disciplinary teams to investigate every serious crash, identify patterns across similar crashes, and devise infrastructural and policy means to prevent serious crashes in the future.
  8. Decouple project planning and programming from the safety goals enumerated in long-range and Vision Zero plans. Nearly every agency has adopted safety as a system goal, but safety is often ignored once projects advance to the planning and programming stages. If safety is considered in the development of project alternatives at all, it is assumed that adherence to the most recent design manuals will automatically result in improvements to safety. This allows for the advancement of project alternatives with safety effects that are, at best, unknown, and often result in the construction of projects that result in preventable injury and death.
    Safe System alternative:
    Road safety needs to be an explicit criterion used in selecting projects for advancement and in selecting from different project alternatives. Any project that is advanced must be shown to have no negative safety effects when compared against the no build alternative.
  9. Assert that compliance with design manuals will automatically result in enhancements to road safety. It is often assumed that recommendations contained in design manuals are based on substantive knowledge of their safety effects. In fact, many of these practices, particularly as they relate to urban streets, are based on theories about how the system should work and how its users should behave, rather than on evidence about the actual safety impacts of specific design treatments.
    Safe System alternative: Identify the suite of likely road users, identify their vulnerabilities, and center the system’s design on the reduction or elimination of these vulnerabilities. This may entail managing vehicle speeds, traffic conflicts, and system access.
  10. Assume that technology will save us. Intelligent transportation systems that perfectly coordinate traffic. Autonomous vehicles that eliminate human error and thus road trauma. Tech “fixes” like these come with foreseen and unforeseen consequences, and they sideline people in the process of shaping their own communities.
    Safe System alternative: Bring the conversation back to basic principles. There are too many cars, and they are traveling too fast in too many contexts. Work with communities to manage travel speeds and reduce the number of vehicles on our roads through changes to built environments, policies, social norms, message framing, and incentives.