In this fact page we will cover:

  • what is the Safe System approach
  • what are the parts of the Safe System
  • why we need the Safe System approach
  • how was the Safe System developed and how is it used in the UK

What is the Safe System

The Safe System is an approach to road safety which puts the human being at its centre and which stems from the belief that every road death or serious injury is preventable.

The Safe System approach is built upon two basic facts about people.

  1. people make mistakes, and will make mistakes when on the roads
  2. people are vulnerable to being killed or seriously injured, if they are involved in a crash.

The Safe System recognises these facts and seeks to design them out of the equation.

Put simply, this means that all elements of the road system - vehicles, infrastructure, speed limits, road users, and post-crash care - work together as one to minimise the chance of a crash, or, if a crash does take place, to prevent death or serious injury from occurring.


Parts of the Safe System

Safe roads Down arrow icon to open accordion

According to the Safe System approach, roads are designed to reduce the risk of crashes occurring, and the severity of injuries if a crash does occur. Safety features are incorporated into the road design from the outset, for example:

Segregating road users: One of the key dangers on our roads is that different types of road user share the same space. As far as possible, the Safe System approach seeks to segregate different road users, developing and enhancing safer routes for vulnerable users. For example, a local council or transport authority may focus on creating or expanding a cycle route network; construct and maintain footways; or work with schools to develop safer walking routes for children.

Segregating traffic: It is also desirable to segregate traffic that is moving in different directions or at different speeds – for example, by crash barriers separating opposite lanes of traffic. Crash barriers and other physical measures should be “soft” and give in the event of a crash, and verges made safer.

Speed: If segregation of people and traffic is not possible, then appropriate speed limits are put in place to protect the most vulnerable of road users.

Self-explaining roads: Safe System roads are “self-explaining”, i.e. they are designed so that the driver is aware of what is expected of them and behaves appropriately. Each class of road is immediately distinctive, with its own carriageway width, road markings, signing and use of street lighting that are consistent throughout the route. The simplicity and consistency of the road’s design reduces driver stress and driver error.

There is also an emphasis on a proactive approach to road safety, with improvements made to improve both the actual and perceived risks of road safety. Crash hot spots are identified, and targeted engineering measures taken to remedy them, e.g. by improving road surfaces, removing roadside obstacles to vision, or installing traffic lights

Safe speeds Down arrow icon to open accordion

Speed limits in the Safe System are based on aiding crash avoidance and a human body’s limit for physical trauma. An unprotected pedestrian hit at over 20mph has a significant risk of death or life-changing injury. A car in a side-on collision can protect its occupants up to around 30mph; a car in a head-on collision up to around 40mph.

Safe System seeks to:

Establish appropriate speed limits: These are set according to road features and function and the known physical tolerances of road users, e.g. by rolling out a 20mph speed limit across a city centre or residential streets.

Enforce existing limits: Transport authorities work with the police to develop and evaluate speed enforcement. They may also work with community groups such as Community Speedwatch (CWS), a locally driven initiative where community members use speed detection devices to monitor vehicle speed, with the support of the police.

Educate road users: Authorities can mount speed enforcement and education campaigns. They might also ensure speed limit compliance by working directly with fleet drivers, licensed taxi companies or contractor vehicles.

Safe vehicles Down arrow icon to open accordion

Vehicles are designed, built and regulated to minimize the occurrence and consequences of crashes, with the emphasis on collision survivability. There are two main strands to safer vehicles – technology and road-worthiness:

Technology: ‘Active safety’ measures that help to prevent crashes include collision-avoidance systems, (semi-)autonomous vehicles, stability control, improved road-vehicle interaction, automatic braking systems, air cushion technology, alcolocks, and speed limiters on fleet vehicles. Vehicle components that protect occupants if a crash does occur (‘passive safety’) include three-point seat belts, padded dashboards and airbags.

Roadworthiness: Consumers and businesses are encouraged to purchase safer vehicles. Vehicles are then maintained to the highest safety standards.

Safe road users Down arrow icon to open accordion

Everyone who uses roads is encouraged to use roads safely and comply with road rules. Emphasis is placed on a philosophy of shared and proportionate responsibility. Safe System encourages safer road use in various ways, including:

Traffic reduction: Authorities work to reduce the volume of motor vehicle traffic, for example, by encouraging greater use of safer modes of travel such as public transport.

Education: Safe System creates risk-aware drivers through education and publicity; for example, making new drivers aware of the risks they face, and encouraging all road users to travel unimpaired, alert, at safe speeds and without distraction, complying with road rules at all times. In-vehicle technologies may be used to give safety feedback and reduce risky behaviours by monitoring how a vehicle is driven, and feeding back information on speed, seatbelt use, hard acceleration and braking. Drivers who do not follow rules are required to undertake further education, for example, through the UK’s National Driver Offender Retraining Scheme (NDORS) course.

Use of streets for other purposes: By encouraging streets to be used for a range of community purposes, everyone is encouraged to have a stake in their streets. This may be small-scale, street-wide activities such as street parties and playing-out activities, or larger-scale municipal closures where roads are closed to traffic.

Examine new ways of measuring safety: Traditionally, casualty statistics have been the primary method of measuring road safety. Safe System looks to additional ways of measuring safety, e.g. the public’s perception of road danger.

Integrated school travel planning initiatives: Children are encouraged to use roads more safely. Transport authorities might work closely with schools to create safe walking routes for children, or expand the number of School Crossing Patrols in the area.

Post-crash care Down arrow icon to open accordion

In the event of a crash measures are put in place to prevent death, limit the severity of the injury and the suffering caused, and to provide survivor’s with the best opportunity for recovery. This includes a robust and appropriate emergency response alongside the provision of long-term support and care.

Every death and serious injury on the road is a preventable tragedy.

In the Safe System, responsibility for safety is shared by everyone. Policy makers, planners, engineers, vehicle manufacturers, fleet managers, enforcement officers, road safety educators, health agencies and the media are accountable for the system’s safety; while every road user, whether they drive, cycle or walk, is responsible for complying with the system’s rules.

The Safe System approach also aligns road safety management with broader ethical, social, economic and environmental goals. By creating partnerships where government or transport agencies work closely with other groups, the safe system tackles other problems associated with road traffic, such as congestion, noise, air pollution and lack of physical exercise.


Why we need the Safe System approach

There is a preventable epidemic on our roads, killing our next generation and causing life-long disabilities such as paralysis, serious head injury and amputation. The cause of the epidemic is the global habit of driving cars, badly.

Mary Williams OBE, Brake chief executive


Road crashes are the biggest global killer of people aged 5 to 29: 1.35 million deaths a year. There are many more horrific injuries, causing disabilities such as paralysis, serious head injury and amputation.

Pollution and disease

Vehicle emissions contribute to global warming and poison the air we breathe. Too much use of cars means many people spend less or no time walking or cycling. Poisonous air and lack of daily exercise both contribute to a range of illnesses and early death.


When we have too many vehicles, we have less space for people. Too many, and fast, vehicles cause fear, stress and anxiety, social isolation and noise, and their emissions smell bad.


Poor people are less likely to own cars and more likely to live near busy roads. They face a higher risk of being hit while tryingto get about. They spend more time breathing dirty air and exposed to traffic noise.


Deaths and injuries from road crashes, and from illnesses related to air pollution and lack of physical activity, damage national and regional economies, particularly the loss of the economic contributions that would have been made by the people killed and injured. There is also the expense of emergency services, hospital care, the costs of caring for people with disabilities, and the costs of caring for dependants of working adults who have died or been disabled and cannot work.


Who developed the Safe System

The two earliest countries to adopt a Safe System approach to road safety were Sweden and the Netherlands.

Sweden launched “Vision Zero” in 1994, based on a strategy already in use in the air and rail transport industries, and summarised by the sentence “No loss of life is acceptable”. Vision Zero became law in 1997 as part of a Road Traffic Safety Bill, setting an ultimate target of no deaths or serious injuries on Sweden’s roads.

The Netherlands piloted its Sustainable Safety approach in 1995, followed by a full start-up programme in 1997. Sustainable Safety differs slightly from Sweden’s Vision Zero approach in that it does not assume that road users will obey the rules, and it considers public information and education to be a vital part of the Safe System.

Safe System in the UK

The Safe System is considered to be international best practice in road safety by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Both organisations recommend that all countries, regardless of their level of road safety performance, follow a Safe System approach.

Safe System has not been adopted by the UK government as a whole. However, Highways England, a government-appointed company set up to operate and improve the strategic road network (motorways and major A-roads) in England, has a Safe System approach at its heart, focusing its strategy on “safer vehicles, safer roads for safer people”.

References and further reading Down arrow icon to open accordion