Why Sweden has so few road deaths??

Economist has this interesting story on Sweden’s roads and its road policy.

The authorities had made a zero road accident target in 1997. It is already on the way:

LAST 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 period. 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?

Since 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.

Sweden has a much more disciplined traffic system with people sticking to the rules:

Planning 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.

Will 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.

Hmm…Safety over madness..

Development is not just about having high incomes and all luxuries in life. Things like safe roads and disciplined driving may look small but matter a great deal. In this regard, the Nordic model of development scores over others. There is a human element to development with citizens giving as much importance as investors.

As developing countries are growing their road accident rates are increasing sharply. This is also based on catch up growth phase. In 1970s then developed world had high accidents rates just like  today’s developing world. Though focused attention on these things is there only in few developed economies like Sweden.

India is going through similar problems of 1970’s developed world with a much much bigger population. Access to easy finance and recent income growth has led to surge in vehicle ownership. Vehicle ownership/1000 people ratio is still one of the lowest in the world and one does not know what will happen as the ratio surges. The problems on Indian roads is only going to increase as time moves on..

road policy  also faces this paradox on economic policymaking- Should we develop fast zipping roads and let people figure the accidents etc on their own? Or should we develop roads that are not as zippy but stable and try and minimise accidents on road…Sweden has chosen the second option. Much of India by our pathetic roads was in the second category but is trying to aggressively move into the first category. There should clearly be a balance..

In this fashionable world of inflation targeting, this targeting of road accidents is likely to be more useful and less controversial..

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