The Safe System Approach: A Guide to Safer Roads

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At one point or another, we’ve all heard someone utter the phrase “everyone makes mistakes.” And while true, mistakes on the road have cost thousands of people their lives — 42,915 in 2021 alone (NHTSA). But what if they didn’t have to? The idea that people will inevitably make mistakes is the foundation of the NHTSA’s Safe System Approach — an approach that has gained popularity as a guide to traffic safety planning and Vision Zero goals throughout the U.S. 

The Safe System Approach is a guiding strategy designed to help communities work toward zero fatalities and serious injuries. Instead of simply trying to prevent crashes, the approach accepts that humans do make mistakes. And instead, it concentrates its approach on creating an environment where crashes (when they do occur) become less impactful. This works by putting multiple layers of protection in place — in instances where one layer fails, any harm is minimized by the redundancy of others.  

Whether you’re just learning about the Safe System Approach or have already started integrating it into safety plans, it’s vital to fully understand its practices and how, when used properly, it can positively impact your community. As the approach emphasizes human-centric and safety-forward planning, it often embraces new practices that focus on the safety of vulnerable road users, rather than the efficiency of vehicular travel — a trade-off that is necessary to achieve zero deaths. While this may require significant changes in traffic planning, decision-making, and overall strategy, these shifts in mindset are essential to ensuring safe travel is accessible for all.

Principles of the Safe System Approach: 

The Safe System Approach is based on six key principles, designed to offer guidance in creating a comprehensive framework for roadway safety.

Death and serious injuries are unacceptable
Humans make mistakes
Humans are vulnerable
Responsibility is shared
Safety is proactive
Redundancy is critical

1. Death and Serious Injuries are Unacceptable

The goal of the first principle is simple: zero fatalities and serious injuries. This means working to create a safer environment by targeting factors in our transportation system that lead to traffic crashes. And while eliminating serious crashes might sound impossible, implementing the Safe System Approach can help us get there. 

Since 1956, TAPCO’s mission has always been to save lives. We’re continuously working to innovate and develop new solutions, starting with the root cause of each problem and addressing them accordingly — all with the goal of saving lives.

In fact, TAPCO’s line of legend-illuminated signs — LegendViz® — was ideated after receiving customer feedback, requesting traffic signs that motorists could see without headlights. 

Graphic depicting a wrong way, do not enter and stop sign

2. Humans Make Mistakes 

Like we said before, everyone makes mistakes. And unfortunately, mistakes can lead to deadly consequences when they happen on our roads. But rather than trying to prevent human error, this principle accepts that mistakes will happen — and instead, prioritizes how our roads can accommodate these mistakes without endangering lives. 

TAPCO understands the variability of human error, which is why when we design our systems, our goal is not simply to mitigate unsafe behavior — it’s also to lessen the impact of unsafe behavior when it inevitably occurs. This approach enables communities to anticipate a variety of scenarios and reduce the impact of crashes across the board. This is demonstrated in innovations like our Wrong-Way Alert Systems, where drivers are encouraged to self-correct — and if they don’t, traffic officials can be notified of an active wrong-way driver. 

Two cars in a crash at an intersection

3. Humans are Vulnerable 

It’s no secret that our human bodies have limits when it comes to enduring crashes — and our roads should be designed accordingly. While it’s not possible to change our vulnerability, we can make changes to how our roadways are designed. 

This is something we keep top-of-mind at TAPCO, as our systems are designed to mitigate the impact of vulnerability. We’re continuously striving to advance our Pedestrian Crosswalk Systems by pairing them with warning alerts and other enhancements, all with the goal of protecting vulnerable road users. By embracing the reality of vulnerability and being mindful of human limits in future planning, we can move one step closer to achieving zero deaths and serious injuries. 

Four pedestrians crossing an RRFB crosswalk

4. Responsibility is Shared 

Everyone plays a part in the safety of our roads, from transportation agencies to citizens. And as a collective effort, making progress toward zero deaths is only possible with active participation from all stakeholders, including companies like TAPCO. 

We know that adopting a safety-first mindset is vital to shared responsibility, and we hope to lead by example: attending community events, promoting traffic safety and offering issue-specific guidance. This mindset can have a significant impact on elements like planning, as this often means making decisions that minimize risks and prioritize life-saving measures, even when other considerations like traffic flow are impacted. While this might go against some prior goals of design and planning, human wellbeing is non-negotiable and should be prioritized above all else. 

A car yields to a woman at an RRFB crosswalk

5. Safety is Proactive 

Being proactive can save lives — literally. Just because a crash hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it never will, especially in high-risk locations, and waiting for that crash to occur before putting safety measures in place can lead to devastating consequences. Data and risk analysis are key to this principle, as both allow agencies to identify problems and act even before a crash occurs. 

To be proactive, you need data. And data can be challenging to acquire, especially in rural locations or in cities and municipalities where there may be just one Traffic Engineer on staff. But even when resources are limited, data is still fundamental to plan and implement safety measures — or even obtain funding. Smart city platforms can provide this valuable data to traffic officials by collecting, storing and maintaining data all in one place. 

6. Redundancy is Crucial

While redundancy might feel unnecessary, it’s actually a powerful tool in transportation. Say one of your safety measures fails. Rather than creating a life-threatening problem that requires immediate action, redundancy offers a powerful safeguard to catch anything that slips through the cracks. Recognizing that challenges like this can occur is a vital part of this principle — and having other measures in place to take over is a necessity, not a luxury. 

Optimizing safety through redundancy is something we've believed in for a long time, and this shines through in many TAPCO innovations. We know nighttime pedestrian safety is a pain point for many communities, which is why we developed enhancements like SafeWalk® and VizMark™ to go beyond the bare minimum — such as painted crosswalk lines and static signs — for pedestrian safety. 

Accompany crosswalk signs and systems and go beyond the bare minimum for pedestrian safety.

A mother and daughter illuminated by SafeWalk® at a crosswalk as a car yields

Objectives of the Safe System Approach: 

When the six principles of the Safe System Approach are utilized together, they can help inform future decision-making when targeting the approach’s five objectives. Each objective is designed to target an aspect of traffic safety, with the goal of creating a layered safety system — so that if one fails, the others can mitigate the impact. With enough protective layers in place, it’s possible to prevent crashes or lessen the severity when a crash does occur.  

Safer people
Safer roads
Safer vehicles
Safer speeds
Post-crash care

1. Safer People 

How people behave on our roads heavily impacts traffic safety. A crucial part of Safer People? Influencing human behavior to make smarter decisions. While creating an environment that eliminates the ability to engage in unsafe behavior is critical to the Safe System Approach, we should also focus on spreading the message that safety is a shared responsibility. This might look like a community leader sharing the reasoning behind roadway changes and safety implementations, or even an education campaign to help drivers understand how (and why) to properly navigate the changes around them. How people behave on our roads heavily impacts traffic safety. A crucial part of Safer People? Influencing human behavior to make smarter decisions. While creating an environment that eliminates the ability to engage in unsafe behavior is critical to the Safe System Approach, we should also focus on spreading the message that safety is a shared responsibility. This might look like a community leader sharing the reasoning behind roadway changes and safety implementations, or even an education campaign to help drivers understand how (and why) to properly navigate the changes around them. 

Six people utilizing an intersection crosswalk

2. Safer Roads 

All roads are built differently, and design often influences how motorists drive on each road. Safer Roads focuses on targeting aspects of road design that pose the most danger to vulnerable road users, as they have the lowest tolerance for injury. Historically, roads have been designed to get vehicles from point A to B as quickly and easily as possible, which has made them more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. Under the guidance of Safer Roads, an approach like Complete Streets might be implemented, as it focuses on safe travel for all road users — especially vulnerable ones. 

3. Safer Vehicles 

Over the years, vehicle safety has come a long way, especially for occupants. Safety features like air bags and seat belts have saved hundreds of thousands of lives (NHTSA), and there are still plenty of improvements to be made — particularly when it comes to the crash impact on those outside the vehicle. With Safer Vehicles, it’s important to recognize the potential of advancements in vehicle technology. Developments like CVI, driver assistance and connected cities can be implemented to reduce injury to non-occupants and mitigate crashes in general.

4. Safer Speeds  

In the U.S., roadways have been built for efficiency, which has too often been synonymous with higher speeds. Safer Speeds targets all aspects of our transportation system that contribute to unsafe speeds and shifts the focus to thoughtful design and infrastructure. This might be as straightforward as reevaluating speed limits in your community and lowering them as needed — or implementing traffic calming speed management strategies such as roundabouts and speed humps. 

5. Post-Crash Care

If all other layers of the Safe System Approach fail and a serious crash does occur, the quality of our emergency response can determine the outcome of a crash. Post-Crash Care recognizes that every second counts and prioritizes EMS response time, especially for remote communities with limited resources. In rural areas in particular, a cohort study found that dispatching police and firefighters trained in basic life support in addition to EMS could increase the survival of crash victims. Additionally, ensuring interoperability of 911 systems can contribute to faster response times, as well as improved safety for all parties involved throughout the response ( 

Having a thorough understanding of the Safe System Approach is just the first step to implementing it, but it’s also a necessary one if you plan on utilizing it to support your community’s safety goals. Getting started requires a strategic, collaborative effort and participation from all stakeholders, as this approach to roadway safety has the potential to change the safety landscape as we know it.  

It’s important to also remember that the goal of the Safe System Approach is not a one-time effort, but an ongoing commitment — one we should all share to achieve zero fatalities and serious injuries. By continuing to evaluate implemented solutions, adapting to emerging challenges and taking a vigilant approach to ensure the ongoing effectiveness of safety measures, we can work toward a future where roadway safety is always improving. 

Two cars in the aftermath of a crash

Robert Kurka

TAPCO | Product Manager

With over a decade in business development, marketing and product management, Robert strives to improve transportation safety through innovation.

He is a pedestrian safety solutions expert who especially enjoys working with the TAPCO family to develop lifesaving products and solutions, such as the SafeWalk® Crosswalk Illuminator and the VizMark™ Pavement Marking Enhancement.

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