All about cycling in the Netherlands
Sustainable Safety (“Duurzaam veilig” in Dutch) is the name of the Dutch approach to achieve a better road safety. This policy is lesser known than ‘strict liability‘ and underestimated. Where strict liability is a cure after something went wrong, sustainable safety does much more and at a different time. The main objectives of this vision are preventing severe crashes and (almost) eliminating severe injuries when crashes do occur. It was introduced and quickly adopted by all road managers in 1992 and has since been very successful. In 2005 it was revised and extended. The approach began with establishing that the road system was inherently unsafe. The goal was to fundamentally change the system by taking a person as a yardstick. The guidelines for design were to be the physical vulnerability of a person, but also what a person can and wants to do (humans make mistakes and don’t always follow rules). There is now an integral approach to the road system which refers to ‘human’ (behavior), ‘vehicle’ (including bicycles!) and ‘road’ (design). Roads and vehicles must be adapted to the human capabilities and the human has to be educated enough to be able to operate a vehicle on a road in a safe manner. The approach is pro-active, it wants to remedy gaps and mistakes in the traffic system before crashes occur. So Sustainable Safety is about a lot more than just infrastructure.
Sustainable Safety is based on five principles:
The principles are based on scientific research and theories from traffic engineering, biomechanics, and psychology. Since the 2005 revision the principles are also based on infrastructure, vehicles, intelligent transport systems, education and enforcement of laws and regulations.
To the Dutch the most ideal situation is when roads and streets have only one single purpose. To achieve this mono-functionality a hierarchy of roads was introduced.
All Dutch streets and roads have been classified (under a legal obligation) and are or will be re-designed to the Sustainable Safety principles by the road managers. This led to areas where people stay (residential areas and areas for shopping/sporting/theatre etc.) and designated space used for the flow of traffic in order to transport people from A to B. Under the Dutch vision these functions cannot be mixed.
Large differences in speed and mass of different road users in the same space must be eliminated as much as possible. Road users can best be forced to travel at lower speeds by road design. This works better than with signs. If crashes occur at lower speed differences they cause a lot less damage to the most vulnerable road user. Where speed differences cannot be eliminated types of traffic must be separated. On roads with higher speeds road users travelling in opposite directions should be separated by a division as well, to further eliminate conflicts. Cycle paths and pedestrians are always separated from these through roads, following the principle of homogeneity of mass as well as speed. Because of this principle the Dutch will never implement a combined bus/cycle lane as is common in some other countries. Instead there sometimes even are bus lanes separated from other motorized traffic because the mass of cars and buses do not match either. Eliminating crossing movements is possible with roundabouts because on roundabouts traffic flows in less conflicting directions than on an ordinary traffic junction.
Road design should be so consistent that road users instantly understand what they can expect and what is expected of them on a certain type of street or road. The road design itself gives information about the type of road/street. If the street is paved with bricks, there are parked cars and the street is shared with cyclists and gives access to homes, the road user will instantly know and feel this is a 30km/h (19mph) local access street. However, if the road has two carriageways separated by a median, there is no parking and cyclists have their own cycle paths, it is clear to the road user that this is a through road.
Humans make errors and willingly or unwillingly break rules. This is a given that cannot be changed. So roads and streets should be designed in such a way that this natural human behavior does not lead to crashes and injuries. An example is a shoulder with a semi-hard pavement. A road user coming off the main road will not crash immediately; the semi-hard shoulder will give this road user the ability to get back to the main carriageway. The equivalent for cyclists is a curb with a different angle; 45 degrees in stead of 90 degrees. Hitting this curb with your front wheel will not immediately result in a fall. Forgivingness towards other road users is enhanced when road design leads to a predictable behavior of road users. A result of this principle is that motorized traffic sometimes gives priority to cyclists even if they don’t have it. Because it is so clear where the cyclists want or need to go the motorist anticipates their behavior and gives the cyclist more room than he or she is legally obliged to, often to the surprise of especially foreign cyclists.
This principle is about the ability of road users to assess their own capabilities to perform tasks in traffic. This has to do with understanding vehicle operation and knowing how speed changes the behavior of the vehicle to understand what speed is safe in a certain situation. But it also has to do with the assessment of speeds of other traffic users to estimate crossing times for instance. These abilities can be improved by education but there are limits, for instance when road users are children or elderly.
Many countries have seen a considerable drop in traffic injuries and deaths since roughly the 1970s. Reasons were the introduction of seatbelts, drunk-driving laws, helmet laws for motorcyclists and mopeds, car cages and airbags. But in the Netherlands there also was a dramatic drop in injuries and deaths of the most vulnerable road users: cyclists and pedestrians. Traffic researches attribute this difference to the introduction of Sustainable Safety.
Ten years after the introduction researches found a traffic death and injury reduction of on average 6% per year. And that wasn’t the only positive outcome. When the costs of the measures that had to be taken were compared with the benefits of the reduced traffic injuries and deaths it was found that the benefits outweighed the costs by a factor of four.
Students of the Northeastern University in Boston compared the Netherlands with the US. After analyzing all they had learned on their study tour in the Netherlands in 2010 they found the following: “In the 1970’s, the Netherlands and the US had the same traffic fatality rate (fatalities per person). Both countries have seen dramatic decreases in traffic fatality rates over the past forty years […]. However, the Netherlands has put much more emphasis than the US on making their roads inherently safer. The result: the Netherlands has reduced its traffic fatality rate to less than half of the US traffic fatality rate; the Netherlands now has a traffic fatality rate that’s only 23% of its 1970 rate, compared to the US whose traffic fatality rate is 54% of its 1970 rate.”
So the system of Sustainable Safety is undisputedly successful, it is worth to be studied.
SWOV Factsheets (English, PDF): sustainable safety principles / sustainable safety background
SWOV Factsheets (Dutch, PDF): duurzaam veilig principes / duurzaam veilig functionaliteit en homogeniteit
Sustainable Safety Wiki (English) by students of the Northeastern University of Boston
This post, written by me, was originally published on the blog ‘A view from the cycle path’ on Monday, 2 January 2012 as part of a double post on sustainable safety vs. strict liability. It was slightly altered so it makes sense on it’s own. Since the original comments were about the piece as a whole they are not included here.