New Zealand and Australia can teach us how to keep pedestrians safe

By Michael Brenneis

Pedestrian traffic deaths in the U.S. are something of an outlier among high-income countries. While many other countries have decreased—or at least stabilized—the number of pedestrians killed annually, our numbers continue to climb. Responding to this crisis, the U.S. DOT recently adopted a Safe System approach. This represents an enormous shift away from a decades-long operating principle of evaluating the transportation system by its level of service for motor vehicles.  FHWA dispatched a team to New Zealand and Australia, two countries that have had greater success incorporating this approach into the DNA of their transportation systems and operations, to learn from their experiences. 

Figure 1. Pedestrian fatality rate per 100,000 population 2010-2021. Source: FHWA

The Safe System approach is guided by six principles:

  • Deaths and serious injuries, and the crashes that cause them, should not be tolerated as the cost of routine transportation.
  • Humans make mistakes and poor decisions that can put themselves and others at risk. The system should be designed to decrease the severity of crashes caused by human error.
  • Human bodies cannot tolerate crash forces, so they should not be exposed to crashes.
  • The responsibility for safe roads is shared by government, industry, advocates, researchers, and the public in the sense that it takes all of these groups working together to succeed.
  • Rather than reacting to crashes that have already occurred, data should be used to identify and improve areas where crashes are more likely to occur.
  • Redundancy is crucial to protect people from harm if one element of protection fails, or if drivers make mistakes.

Australia and New Zealand began including a Safe System approach in planning documents in 2004, and then incorporated it into a National Road Safety Strategy in 2010, which allowed states and territories time to work through initial apprehensions that change would be expensive and politically unpalatable. Australia and New Zealand were selected by FHWA from a review of 11 countries based on their innovative practices, demonstrated success, and contextual similarities to the U.S.

Some standout approaches and policies:

  • Auckland, New Zealand’s Future Connect Plan calls on planners to evaluate networks by mode to locate and prioritize discontinuities that can be connected to increase the safety of pedestrians and cyclists. 
  • New Zealand’s One Network Framework acknowledges that roads and streets move people and goods, but are also “places where people spend time.” The framework classifies roads and streets by considering their land use and urban design context. This allows planners to make more informed and strategic decisions based on the daily volume of people using each mode and the nature of their movements. 
  • Australia’s 2021-2030 National Road Safety Strategy inserts context sensitive speed targets into the application of Safe System elements, recognizes the array of modes being used in complex urban areas, and focuses on the safety of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users. 

The FHWA team condensed what they learned into three guiding principles to direct the U.S. in its desire to reduce pedestrian deaths on our roadways:

  • Reduce vehicle speed to mitigate kinetic energy using infrastructure and operational strategies, including emerging technologies like automated enforcement.
  • Separate vulnerable road users and motorized vehicles in time and space when vehicle speeds exceed survivable levels.
  • Design roads and streets to suit their desired context, considering future land use, as well as economic, climate, public health, and equity goals.

Developing a culture that accepts traffic safety as a primary tenet—in the case of New Zealand and Australia—has resulted in fewer traffic deaths and improved conditions for pedestrians. Other contributing factors that the authors point to include: nationalized health care that includes post-crash care regardless of fault; acceptance of camera-based automated enforcement while acknowledging a different lived experience with law enforcement than many people in the U.S. experience; lower rates of drug use (although alcohol consumption is similar to the U.S.); significant investment in transit and high mode share; and a culture of civic engagement and trust in government that is more robust than the authors experience in the U.S.

Photo Credit: Alvin & Chelsea via Pexels, unmodified. License.