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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Road Safety in the Context of Urban Development in Sweden and California


Road safety is a serious public health issue throughout the world, with more than one million people killed in traffic accidents each year. Despite the severity of its health impacts, the World Health Organization says that traffic safety is a "neglected" topic. Perhaps this is the case in the US, where traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for people up to age 34, and where the traffic safety record is one of the worst among high-income countries. Other high income countries such as Sweden have much better road safety performance.

Differences in road safety between countries could be explained by the quality of infrastructure, driving conditions, the culture of driving, or the power of enforcement. Each of these elements is shaped by institutional contexts such as design, planning, and policy making processes. Moreover, research about other technical systems has shown the powerful effect of organization, norms, and communication on safety. This led me to ask: How do our cultural and professional interpretations of safety influence the way we plan, design, and manage streets? Based on field studies, statistical analysis of crash and injury data, and interviews with practitioners, I found that professionals in California and Sweden share similar ideas about road safety, such as the roles of driver behavior, the road environment, and the vehicle in producing hazards. Professionals in both cases also face similar conflicts in road safety planning, such as whether to provide greater mobility for cars, or to reduce the speed of traffic to prevent injury. These similarities reflect shared professional and disciplinary backgrounds and sources of information, as well as similarities in the issues that municipalities and regions face. The main differences are in the interaction between road safety ideas and larger institutional contexts such as suburban land development. For instance, in the middle of the 20th century, Sweden created a multi-modal transportation system that accommodated cars as well as transit, pedestrians, and bicyclists—even in the suburbs. A combination of architects, city planners, and transportation engineers supported this development. Multi-disciplinary policy communities in Sweden found traction for their safety-oriented designs in the relatively integrated transportation and land use planning system. In the US, such integration was not the norm, and efforts to use design and land use controls to create a safe transportation system often meet resistance from the established institutions of the car-oriented road transportation system. Improving road safety in California and the US requires addressing not only the dominance of automobiles, but also recognizing that sectors outside of, but related to transportation, such as housing, public health, and land use planning, need to be key participants in creating a safe road transportation system.

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