How Sweden made its roads the world’s safest for cyclists

In 1997, Sweden embarked on an ambitious journey. They initiated plan, “Vision Zero,” intending to eliminate all road fatalities by 2020.

While road deaths haven’t yet reached zero completely, immense progress has been made towards that goal.

Overall, the country has seen a reduction of over 50% in road fatalities. 2020 saw only 204 deaths compared to 541 in 1997 when the plan was initiated. In addition, by 2012, only one child under seven years old was killed on the road – a significant drop compared to 58 in 1970.

The new goal targets zero deaths by 2050. So how does Sweden plan to achieve this goal, and what does it mean for bike safety?

How is Sweden improving road safety?

Sweden took a radical approach to improve road safety. The country practically rebuilt the road system to prioritize safety over other factors like speed and convenience.

Conventional thinking is that accidents are the driver’s fault if something goes wrong, but Vision Zero applies a social innovation tool called systems thinking, which says human behaviour must to be taken into account in road design and transport systems. We know people will always make mistakes, so it’s up to road and traffic systems to protect us when human error prevails. “In every situation a person might fail, the road system should not.”

First of all, the Swedish government built over 1,500 kilometres of re-designed roads referred to as “2+1” roads. In this system, there are three lanes – two heading in one direction and another lane heading in the opposite direction. The middle lane alternates so that the two outer lanes take turns in using the middle as a passing lane. This ensures passing is always done on the left, safely away from bicycles and pedestrians.  While it may seem confusing to drivers unfamiliar with the system, “2+1” roads are estimated to have saved over 145 lives in the first decade since Vision Zero.

In addition to the re-designed roads, over 12,600 safer pedestrian crossings were constructed. The new crossings including pedestrian bridges and zebra-crossings accompanied by flashing lights and protective speed-bumps. This combination of safety features is estimated to have decreased the number of pedestrian deaths by 50%.

Traffic police have also cracked down on drunk driving infractions. Now, fewer than 0.25% of tested drivers show alcohol levels over the legal limit.

For bikers, a combination of important factors has led to dramatically improved safety. With more cycling infrastructure, slower speed limits, fewer vehicles on the road, less residential traffic, speed bumps, and stricter policing, bicycle riders’ safety is at an all-time high.

What are the benefits for bike riders?

The Swedish Traffic Safety Council actively promotes bike riding as an activity that improves your quality of life. One of the reasons the council is so adamant in its support of road safety is because it recognizes how bike riding addresses other aspects of health and community well-being. If pedestrians and bike riders are protected and encouraged to engage in healthy activities, it benefits society as a whole.

Here are some of the reasons why the Swedish Traffic Safety Council is working so hard to improve road safety for drivers, pedestrians, and bike riders alike:

  • Cycling health benefits are much higher than the associated risks, by a factor of twenty to one.
  • Cyclists have a longer lifespan. They live for two years longer than non-cyclists, on average. They also take up to 15% fewer days off work due to illness.
  • Regular bike riding can elevate your fitness levels to that of a person ten years younger.
  • Cycling and walking are proven ways to reduce obesity. Countries with high cycling rates typically have lower obesity rates.
  • Bicycle riding positively benefits your mental and emotional health. It can improve feelings of well-being, boost self-confidence, increase stress tolerance, reduce fatigue, treat sleep disorders, and influence many other medical symptoms and conditions.
  • Commuting to work on your bike can lower your mortality rate by 28% compared to the average person.

Sweden’s Vision Zero model makes it clear that quality of life and health should never be sacrificed for mere convenience. It’s an excellent example of what can happen when you place people’s well-being over speed or efficiency.