The power of Zero

Posted on December 28th, 2011 by James Luckhurst

In conversation with Professor Claes Tingvall, the road safety expert credited with ‘inventing’ the Vision Zero concept. Question time

Q How well did people understand Vision Zero initially?
A: Some thought that perhaps it was a strange idea. Many didn’t understand it, because they saw it as a figure. Yes, the goal is zero, but that’s impossible. We said, it’s a mindset not a figure. In essence, what you’re saying is that you go from a situation where safety is a trade-off with mobility, to a situation where you say that life and health are paramount in the road transport system.

Q: Aren’t you taking away the responsibility of individuals with that philosophy?
A: It’s easy to blame the individual and say, “This is a perfect system where stupid people kill themselves.” But to say that this is a stupid system where normal people get killed, then you can blame the providers. Just like in the workplace, where it’s the employer who has responsibility. You say that the ones who manage safety is the provider, and that’s the mindset.

Q: But was the support you needed forthcoming?
A: It took some years before all the stakeholders came on board. It’s unusual that the political process moves more quickly than society! Nowadays there is no one who objects to the vision itself.

Q: But what about the methods? How do you get there?
We have ideas and commitments from manufacturers like Volvo, who have said that, by 2020, no one will be killed or seriously injured in or by a Volvo car, which is a brave statement. The business sector has picked it up more quickly than the public sector.  Key to getting there is the commitment from so many who support Vision Zero and who back it up. It has spread around the world too, and many countries have adopted it. Organisations like the OECD have been clear that this is the way to look at it. The WHO has picked it up. There is even now ISO 39001, the safety standard in traffic management, which is specifically for “organisations who wish to eliminate death and serious injury”. Things are coming along as a structure. It’s definitely more than just “blue sky thinking”.

Q: So you’re identifying human behaviour as the most important issue?
A: Of course. Nearly every crash starts with a human act. Nothing else can happen. It’s usually a mistake or a violation. Moreover, the consequences are already in the system design. Every professional should know that you need to bring into your design the failing human. If that is not your starting point when you design something hazardous, then you will fail. There is no example in history of designing something based on the human doing the right thing.

Q: How does that work exactly in road safety management?
A: Well, as an example, if we design for restrained occupants in a vehicle, you can’t let people drive around without using their seatbelts. Never put more requirements on the humans than we can guarantee will work. That’s why we have picked in the community the absolute need for a driver to be sober, to not speed, and to wear a seatbelt. We need 100% compliance, otherwise the system breaks down.

Q: What about designing a system based on non-compliance?
A: We could design a transport system for drunk people, but it would be slow and chaotic. Likewise, we could design a system for unrestrained people, but this would require a drop in average speeds on all journeys of 40%. We could design a system for speeders but it would be extremely expensive.

Q: So is compliance achieved by technology, enforcement, education or economic incentives?
That is a question in terms of what it costs and how much you can squeeze people. That’s where political will comes in. What can we expect from our citizens? And how tough can the political system be in making sure it happens?
Seatbelt use is a typical example. In Sweden we have 96% seatbelt use – a high number. But 40% of our fatalities in cars related to unrestrained people. So 96% may sound fantastic, but you’ve only done half a job. Can we get to 100% through enforcement or technology? We cannot be happy with 96%. Forget it. You haven’t reached an acceptable or necessary level.

Q: You have made clear that Vision Zero involves every organisation, every provider. Does that include employers of people who drive for work, or at work, or to work?
A: Yes. Look at it this way. You don’t send police into the workplace to say ‘Behave!” to the workers. The employer has (hopefully) sensible measures in place to make sure everyone goes home safe every day.
But it’s different on the road. Suddenly it’s a relationship between the professional driver and the police. You need relationships where police can visit the management of organisation, who then pass on the encouragement to their people who drive. Police should not waste their scarce resources having to tell employees how to behave on the road.

Q: As the creator of Vision Zero, where do you stand on the issue of targets?
A: Targets are a key in the management of traffic safety. Improvements don’t happen by themselves, at random. They happen because you manage them. There is no other way of achieving something. When it comes to management, I guess all professional organisations use targets. Otherwise how would an employee know we can do things better tomorrow than we do today.
However, you need to be extremely careful, because if you believe in targets and use them in your management system, then you can create a catastrophe. Bonus programmes with targets can create financial catastrophe, as we have seen recently.
You have to break targets down and make them meaningful. Otherwise, how can a police officer on duty understand his role.

Q: But isn’t breaking down targets from a general vision to a set of specific goals very difficult?
A: It’s tricky to break targets down so that they become useful in the community.
Something general like halving the deaths on roads is OK, but it’s what happens next that counts. Break this down into components related to safety: seatbelt use, infrastructure, speed control and the like, but you need to be careful how you measure them. Targets should be challenging but meaningful. If you look at really professional countries, they will have a structure like this.

Q: Why do you place so much emphasis on feedback?
A: Two year-old figures mean nothing to management. You need a feedback loop that’s frequent (monthly, perhaps) and measured not on the number of deaths but against the broken down target in relation to your operations. Traffic safety has been slow in picking up management techniques. Good things are happening, and it will be very helpful for organisations to work in a structured and systematic way.