Safe System Approach to Road Safety

According to the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 8,730 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the first three months of 2021, a 10.5% increase from the 7,900 fatalities the agency projected for the first quarter of 2020. In California, according to provisional SWITRS data for 2019, the number of pedestrians killed in 2019 was 1,030, an increase of 48 fatalities from 2017. The number of bicyclists killed in the same period decreased from 164 in 2017 to 157 fatalities in 2019. These losses of life are unacceptable and preventable. As acknowledged in strategies like Vision Zero, Toward Zero Deaths and the Road to Zero, no one should be killed or suffer severe injuries on our roadways and there is a moral imperative to ensure and increase safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all.

To reach the goal of zero deaths on our roadways, traffic safety professionals and advocates have called for changing the way we think about road safety and taking a different approach.

The Safe System Approach

Until recently, the expectation that traffic deaths are inevitable was the main focus of approaches to road safety. In order to create safer communities, safety efforts focused on changing human behaviors to prevent crashes and injuries.

The Safe System approach counters this, with safety efforts to save lives instead focusing on the understanding that humans make mistakes, human bodies are fragile, and crashes are likely to happen. Now, attention is refocused on the reduction of fatal and severe injuries when a crash occurs through the use of vehicle or roadway design and the management of our infrastructure.

Safe System Principles

According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), there are six principles that underly the Safe System Approach:

  • Deaths and injuries are unacceptable: While no crashes are desirable, the Safe System approach prioritizes crashes that result in death and serious injuries, since no one should experience either when using the transportation system.
  • Humans make mistakes: People will inevitably make mistakes that can lead to crashes, but the transportation system can be designed and operated to accommodate human mistakes and injury tolerances and avoid death and serious injuries.
  • Humans are vulnerable: People have limits for tolerating crash forces before death and serious injury occurs; therefore, it is critical to design and operate a transportation system that is human-centric and accommodates human vulnerabilities.
  • Responsibility is shared: All stakeholders (transportation system users and managers, vehicle manufacturers, etc.) must ensure that crashes don’t lead to fatal or serious injuries.
  • Safety is proactive: Proactive tools should be used to identify and mitigate latent risks in the transportation system, rather than waiting for crashes to occur and reacting afterwards.
  • Redundancy is crucial: Reducing risks requires that all parts of the transportation system are strengthened, so that if one part fails, the other parts still protect people.

Safe System ElementsGraphic showing the principles and five elements of a Safe System Approach

A Safe System also addresses every aspect of crash risk through five elements, or layers of protection:

  • Safe Road Users
  • Safe Vehicles
  • Safe Speeds
  • Safe Roads
  • Post Crash Care

Listed below are a selection of resources related to the Safe System Approach to road safety. This page will continue to be updated with resources as we come across new information, so please continue to check our site for updates. Have a resource to share? Please contact us at


  • Zero Deaths - Saving Lives through a Safety Culture and a Safe System (FHWA) - The FHWA adopted the Zero Deaths vision, influenced by the Vision Zero strategy, which recognizes that even one death within our transportation systems is unacceptable. All road users deserve safe mobility options and the Safe System approach is how to get there.
  • Safe System Resources (ITE) - The ITE’s Safe System webpage contains an explanation, framework and resources on the Safe System Approach. ITE created the webpage alongside the Road to Zero Coalition and members of the RTZ Safe System Working Group
  • Vision Zero Network (VZN) - The VZN helps communities across the United States address traffic deaths and injuries. Based on the Vision Zero strategy, the VZN aims to eliminate all traffic deaths and injuries across the United States while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all.
  • Road to Zero: A Plan to Eliminate Roadway Deaths (NSC/Road to Zero Coalition) - The Road to Zero creates a plan to eliminate roadway deaths across the United States by 2050. The coalition created a report to help guide their work to reach zero roadway deaths and encourage anyone to join their coalition.
  • Toward Zero Deaths - Toward Zero Deaths is a strategy to eliminate all serious injuries and deaths on our highway systems nationally.
  • Safe Systems and the role of systems science (CSCRS) - Safe Systems and system sciences are interwoven strategies that the Collaborative Sciences Center for Road Safety (CSCRS) applies to their work in order to reduce traffic injuries and deaths. The CSCRS web page explains the principles for each strategy and how they work together.

Publications, Reports

  • Recommendations of the Safe System Consortium (2021) - The Consortium’s report details their recommendations to reimagine road safety and equity in the United States. The recommendations set forth by the Consortium aim to change the course of safety on our roads and create more equitable transportation systems.
  • Safe System Strategic Plan (2021) - The Road to Zero Coalition created the Safe System Strategic Plan in order to create a guide for the strategies, focus areas, measures of success and specific actions needed for infrastructure owners and operators in the United States to fully adopt the Safe System Approach. The plan aims to change mindsets, scale and practices through the education of decision makers, influences and practitioners.
  • The Road to Zero: A Vision for Achieving Zero Roadway Deaths by 2050 (2018) - The Road to Zero report creates a vision of a world where no roadway deaths occur by the year 2050. By envisioning a safer future, we can work together to inform and coordinate traffic safety efforts in the present.
  • Shared Responsibility for Road Safety in Safe Systems Context (2018) - This fact sheet from UC Berkeley SafeTREC discusses a principle integral to a Safe Systems Approach, shared responsibility for road safety.
  • The Goal of Road Safety in the Safe Systems Context (2018) - This fact sheet from UC Berkeley SafeTREC provides an overview of the Safe Systems Approach and how it relates to both current road safety practice and initiatives such as Vision Zero.

International Resources

  • The Safe System Approach (PIARC) - PIARC’s (World Safety Association) road safety manual, based on the Safe System Approach, allows countries worldwide to create transportation systems that are free of traffic deaths.
  • Safe System principles (National Road Safety Strategy, Austraila) - Australia’s National Road Safety Strategy, based on the Safe System Approach, provides the principles needed to create safer mobility for all. 
  • Sustainable & Safe: A Vision and Guidance for Zero Road Deaths (WRI, GRSF) - The World Resources Institute and Global Road Safety Facility created this report to create the vision and guidance needed in order to achieve zero road deaths globally.

Events, Trainings, Programs

Community Approaches

  • Conducting Community Engagement with a Safe System Lens (SafeTREC) - Few resources, if any, address how to apply the Safe System framework in community engagement and planning efforts. In this brief, UC SafeTREC and Cal Walks demonstrate how they adapted FHWA’s Safe System elements and principles to not only make it more applicable for grassroots community engagement but also to strengthen the impact of the approach.