Varying Visions of “Vision Zero” Road Safety

By Remington Latanville - 19 December 2023
Varying Visions of “Vision Zero” Road Safety

Remington Latanville compares the Vision Zero commitments of Canada and Sweden, and points to the policy improvements needed to save lives on the road.

Every year, approximately 1.3 million people die on the world’s roads, more than half of which are pedestrians, the road’s most vulnerable user. Some countries, such as Sweden and Denmark, have had outstanding success with reducing fatalities on their roads. On the other hand, other countries, such as Canada and the United States, have had much less success. The difference lies primarily in how their governments prioritize, implement, and enforce their road safety policies. To illuminate this disparity, we’ll compare Sweden’s road safety policies to Canada’s. The implications and applicability of this comparison are not limited to these countries, but rather to many countries that fall within this spectrum of road safety attainment.

Sweden’s Success at Reducing Road Deaths

In Sweden, the Social Democratic party developed and presented “Vision Zero” as a road safety bill to Parliament in 1997 where it obtained near-unanimous support by all political parties. Largely then, “Vision Zero never became party policy, but instead a common expression of political direction for the whole society”. At its core, Vision Zero is the ethical perspective that lifelong injuries or death should not be suffered as a result of road traffic accidents. The fundamental propositions of Vision Zero include that the human life, health, and safety should be prioritized over all other functions of the road transport system, including reducing congestion and improving mobility.

Vision Zero introduced a radical shift in focus away from the fault of individual road users and towards the improvement of the entire system. Further, it emphasized that a single human misjudgment should not result in lifelong injury or death, and as such, the road system should prevent these types of consequences from being physically possible. Therefore, to reach zero road deaths and serious injuries, all components of the road transport environment (vehicles, roads, nearby environments, etc.) must be inspected. Specifically, it must be established that the kinetic energy resulting from road traffic accidents does not exceed what the human body can tolerate. In summary, the formulation of Vision Zero rested on the recognition of unpreventable human error, the prioritization of eliminating fatalities and chronic injuries through a function of calculating human tolerance, and as explored next, the joint responsibility of the system and design.

Importantly, responsibility for eliminating road traffic related deaths rests with those who design the road transport system in a multidimensional approach (highway agencies, road managers, vehicle manufacturers, road transport carriers, police, local governments, legislative authorities, etc.).

Specific road design features include lower speed limits, speed cameras, speed bumps, roundabouts, points of road narrowing, and fewer motor vehicle lanes. Vehicle manufacturers are also expected to participate by way of safety technology innovations, of which Swedish car producer, Volvo is an industry leader. As well, between 1990 and 2014, the number of road traffic deaths dropped by 65%, and the number of serious injuries fell by 22%. These improvements are particularly noteworthy given that during this same period, vehicle ownership increased by 32% and the total vehicle kilometers driven climbed by 23%.

The Casualties of Canada’s “Vision Zero”

In stark contrast to Sweden’s success with reducing road fatalities through Vision Zero, Canada continues to experience an exorbitant number of road fatalities, even with the adoption of Vision Zero by many Canadian cities. Zooming in to Toronto, Canada’s largest city, pedestrian fatalities have trended between 21 and 41 over the past 5 years. While annual fatalities appear to be decreasing, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic make the trend inconclusive.

Although Vision Zero was formally adopted in 2016, it is clear that it has not been implemented in such a way that leads to meaningful improvement. Predominantly, this is attributable to a strong culture of automobility that circumvents responsibility for road safety in the name of safeguarding drivers’ interests. Instead of taking accountability for the safe design of the road network and ensuring the participation of vehicle manufacturers, it would appear that human judgement for decisions and actions made while on the road is most heavily relied upon.

In particular, urban Canadian arterial roads most often are 4 to 6+ motor vehicle lanes wide with posted speeds of 60 kilometres per hour and long stretches between signalized intersections. They seldom contain physical separations between motor vehicles and other road users, or traffic calming measures, such as speed bumps/humps, medians, or road narrowing, for example. Clearly, the primary feature of Vision Zero is not being followed – to make road design safe enough that a single human misjudgement cannot result in loss of life.

Instead, road space for motor vehicles is vehemently protected, both publicly and politically, which further victimizes the most vulnerable road users. Interestingly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Canada’s major roads were transformed to support active transportation. Resistance to these transformations was much lower than in pre-pandemic times, a finding which can largely be attributed to the fact that there were much fewer cars on the road during that time. Now, in what we may consider post-pandemic times, resistance has returned, and pressure has mounted to remove the pandemic-time installations of bike lanes and other active transportation infrastructure.

Predominantly, Canadian politicians rally around the demands of their driver constituent base, making active transportation improvements few and far between. For example, Ontario’s Premier, Doug Ford, is famous for proclaiming to “end the war on cars”. Taking this one step further, the Canadian automotive industry is not held to the same standard as Sweden’s. While Sweden expects vehicle manufacturers to actively participate in the shared vision of zero road deaths, Canada’s auto manufacturers appear to get a free pass.

Vehicle manufacturers in Canada are resistant to implement optional safety features. Even front airbags were strongly rejected in Canada, and vehicle manufacturers attempted to transfer the blame to drivers and passengers who did not wear seatbelts. Ironically, mandatory seatbelts and related technology were also resisted. Currently, auto manufacturers are resisting mandatory speed limiters and pedestrian detection systems. Evidently, freedom of choice and values of individualism, prominent in Canadian society under neoliberalism, have also proliferated in the automotive industry. As a result, auto manufacturers are able to evade responsibility and accountability for the safety of drivers, passengers, and all other road users.

Not only do they get a free pass on Vision Zero participation, but they also get heaps upon heaps of government funding. To attract business in the automotive industry, Canada boasts its generous corporate tax breaks and incentives. The federal and provincial governments continue to invest heavily in the auto industry, doling out hundreds of millions of dollars to auto manufacturers in the name of stimulating the economy and creating jobs. Just like there is no expectation for safety innovations or upgrades, there is no accountability for where the government money goes, how many jobs are created, or fundamentally, if it even pays off.

A Fork in the Road – Where Canada Should Go from Here

Altogether, this is reflective of Canada’s lack of road safety culture, opposite to Sweden’s which is largely non-political and seen as a shared responsibility and moral obligation. Strengthening Vision Zero in Canada will require cross-industry collaboration and accountability, government enforcement and heightened participation – especially as it pertains to road design, and greater awareness among the general public. Achieving road safety is no small feat, but the reward of saving lives is worth all the efforts. Sweden is an exemplary model for how to achieve road safety and the incredible outcomes that are possible.

These implications and strategies are not only relevant to Canada, but rather to any country that is struggling to reduce road deaths, and particularly in the context of automobility in North America. Countries should openly share their road safety challenges, strategies, and successes with each other. Greater communication and collaboration between countries would allow for learning opportunities and accelerated improvements. For example, organizations such as Vision Zero Network exist in the United States to promote collaboration and road safety momentum among all states. Similar initiatives should be created at an international level to encourage information sharing and support.



Remington Latanville is a PhD Candidate at Toronto Metropolitan University. She studies the intersections of policy, social welfare, and urban design.

Photo by Ruiyang Zhang

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