How the Dutch Delivered a Traffic Safety Revolution

In 1970. Since then, American streets have become far more dangerous. What happened?

For the last 50 years, the U.S. has increasingly fallen behind most other industrialized countries when it comes to traffic fatalities. But the Biden administration’s transportation strategy offers an opportunity to change that trajectory — Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has called the U.S. traffic fatality rate a “crisis” and promises to release a first-ever National Roadway Safety Strategy.

One way we can take maximum advantage of this opportunity is to seek lessons learned from countries that have blazed a path toward Vision Zero, the goal for zero traffic fatalities that has been embraced by policy makers around the globe.

Exemplar countries have embraced a holistic approach to traffic safety. This is an important strategic reframing of the issue, grounded in the belief that improving safety is about much more than just changing user behavior or developing better technology.

Our recent research focuses on the Netherlands, which went from a traffic fatality rate that was almost as bad as that of the U.S. in 1970 to now having one of the lowest rates in the world. The top-line numbers are eye-opening: In 1970, the Netherlands experienced 245 traffic fatalities per million people, almost as high as the U.S. rate at 257 per million. The U.S. also had a much lower rate of fatality when measured in relation to fatalities per miles driven. But by 2019, the fatality rate in the Netherlands had plummeted to 34 per million, 70% lower than that in the U.S.

But what is even more astonishing are the outcomes for different classes of road users. As a backdrop, over the last 10 years or so, traffic fatality rates for pedestrians have been on a troubling upwards trend in the U.S. — a trend that has gotten a lot of media coverage, and rightly so. But if we just look at the last decade, we miss the true tale of the public policy disaster that these numbers tell. In 1970, the traffic fatality rate for pedestrians in the Netherlands was 430 per million pedestrians, making them much more at risk than people in vehicles, who had a rate of 200 per million. The corresponding numbers in the U.S. were 600 and 240, for people on foot and in vehicles, respectively.

relates to How the Dutch Delivered a Traffic Safety Revolution
Credit: University of Connecticut
relates to How the Dutch Delivered a Traffic Safety Revolution
Credit: University of Connecticut

Today, the risk of fatality for people on foot and for people in vehicles in the Netherlands is almost identical, at 23 per million. In the U.S., pedestrian risk of fatality in 2019 was 686 per million — eight times that of people in vehicles. Even people inside vehicles in the U.S. are at much greater risk of dying in a motor vehicle crash than any class of road users in the Netherlands, including people on foot and people on bikes. In other words, even when protected by tons of metal, Americans still face a greater risk of fatality than people without such armor in the Netherlands.

What changed in the Netherlands? Well, first we should recognize and celebrate those that triggered the changes — the thousands of people who took to the streets in the 1970s in Stop de Kindermoord (or “stop the child murder”) demonstrations. This advocacy forced an initially reluctant officialdom to take traffic fatality seriously. Activists also led the way in showing that the necessary change was in societal thinking about the role and function of streets — and they took it upon themselves to show how streets could be re-configured for safety and pleasant living. Eventually, these grassroots interventions were codified into new rules addressing how streets were designed, funded and governed. As a result, separated cycle tracks (not painted bike lanes) and other design changes that control speed on automobiles were implemented to give bicyclists and pedestrians dominant roles on Dutch streets.

The wave of innovations emanating from the Netherlands since the 1970s has trickled down to the U.S. under such titles as traffic calming, woonerfs, and shared spaces. The difference is that in the U.S. these ideas have not resulted in systemic changes to the underlying logic and philosophy of street- and place-making. Only a handful of locations have adopted these concepts, and mostly in a piecemeal fashion.

Unfortunately, for much of the U.S., these ideas are still literally foreign concepts. The current battle pitting safety advocates against an obscure government-published document called the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) is illustrative of the institutional sclerosis that keeps us from making real headway in traffic safety. The MUTCD plays an oversized role in determining how our streets look, feel and function. Groups such as National Association of City Transportation Officials rightly contend that this document is single-mindedly fixated on the efficient movement of vehicular traffic, sometimes at the cost of safety. It is an illustration of the institutional mindset that still, at its core, treats streets as if they are primarily for vehicles and fails to adequately consider other users or the welfare of the city.

The U.S. also focuses on user impairment or distraction as the primary cause of crashes. We’ve been bombarded with the message that more than 90% of all crashes are caused by driver error, a statistic that been latched onto by the promoters of autonomous vehicles as a major rationale for pursuing self-driving technology. The idea is that if we can somehow remove error-prone human drivers from the equation, we will significantly reduce fatalities.

There are lots of reasons to question this premise, but for the sake of this conversation let’s assume that the 90% number is a true reflection of reality. Given this very tenuous assumption, how much could autonomous vehicles reduce fatalities? Perhaps by 70%? In that case, is the push for autonomous vehicles justified based on this safety argument? (Again, let’s ignore that autonomous vehicles, should they ever materialize, will likely bring new types of crashes.) What is also ignored by those making the safety case for AVs is that the traffic fatality rate in countries like the Netherlands is already 70% lower than it is in the U.S.

This reduction was achieved without replacing humans with machine operators and at very little cost, compared to the billions being spent to get AV technology and its attendant infrastructure off the ground. The approach in the Netherlands and other similar counties also delivered cleaner air, quieter and more attractive cities, more space for human activities and fewer climate-warming emissions. Why do we spend so much money on the illusionary technological savior, and yet so little on understanding and implementing measures that have been proven to make places that are safe for people? Even a small shift in focus would go a long way.

The bottom line from our research is that in the U.S. we still are fixated on the idea that it is largely the responsibility of the users — be it pedestrians, cyclists, or operators of vehicles — to keep themselves safe. We conveniently ignore the fact that it is the environment that we have built that has proven to be so deadly for people, even when they exercise due caution. Systematic treatment of safety requires us to broaden our focus in seeking solutions that understand the entire ecology of movement as a complex system of interactions. Changing this paradigm is the key to saving thousands of lives each year.

Norman Garrick is a professor emeritus of civil engineering at the University of Connecticut, specializing in the planning and design of urban transportation systems.

Ge Shi is a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Connecticut.

Carol Atkinson-Palombo is a professor of geography and co-director of the Sustainable Cities Research Group at the University of Connecticut

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