The Safe System approach

Safe System principles

The National Road Safety Strategy is based on the Safe System approach to improving road safety. This involves a holistic view of the road transport system and the interactions among roads and roadsides, travel speeds, vehicles and road users. It is an inclusive approach that caters for all groups using the road system, including drivers, motorcyclists, passengers, pedestrians, cyclists, and commercial and heavy vehicle drivers. Consistent with our long-term road safety vision, it recognises that people will always make mistakes and may have road crashes—but the system should be forgiving and those crashes should not result in death or serious injury.

Key inputs to the Safe System are:

  • using data, research and evaluation to understand crashes and risks
  • developing road rules and enforcement strategies to encourage compliance and manage non-compliance with the road rules
  • managing access to the road through licensing drivers and riders and registering vehicles
  • providing education and information
  • being open to and seeking innovation
  • developing standards for safe vehicles, roads and equipment
  • good management and coordination

Human Tolerance of Crash Impacts: work to prevent crashes that result in death or serious injury. Safe Roads. Safe Speeds. Safe People. Safe Vehicles. Education and Information; Innovations; Standards; Coordination; Data, research and evaluation; Road rules and enforcement; Licensing and registration.

Note: Safe system diagram adapted from Safer Roads, Safer Queensland: Queensland's Road Safety Strategy 2015–21

The Safe System approach was adopted in Australia during the period of the previous national strategy, through the National Road Safety Action Plans and the strategies of individual states and territories. It is consistent with the approaches adopted by the safest countries in the world, and is a central theme of the landmark OECD report Towards Zero: Ambitious road safety targets and the safe system approach, published in 2008.

There are several guiding principles to this approach:

  1. People make mistakes. Humans will continue to make mistakes, and the transport system must accommodate these. The transport system should not result in death or serious injury as a consequence of errors on the roads.
  2. Human physical frailty. There are known physical limits to the amount of force our bodies can take before we are injured.
  3. A ‘forgiving’ road transport system. A Safe System ensures that the forces in collisions do not exceed the limits of human tolerance. Speeds must be managed so that humans are not exposed to impact forces beyond their physical tolerance. System designers and operators need to take into account the limits of the human body in designing and maintaining roads, vehicles and speeds.

Shared responsibility

While individual road users are expected to be responsible for complying with traffic laws and behaving in a safe manner, it can no longer be assumed that the burden of road safety responsibility simply rests with the individual road user. Many organisations—the ‘system managers’—have a primary responsibility to provide a safe operating environment for road users. They include the government and industry organisations that design, build, maintain and regulate roads and vehicles. These and a range of other parties which are involved in the performance of the road transport system and the way roads and roadsides are used, all have responsibility for ensuring that the system is forgiving when people make mistakes.

Road safety responsibilities also extend to various professional groups, as well as the broader community. For example: health professionals have a role in helping their clients to manage their safety on the roads; and parents contribute significantly to the road safety education of their children—not only through their direct supervision of learner drivers, but also by modelling their own driving and road user behaviour.

Corporate responsibility

Companies and other employers also play a major role in building a road safety culture for Australia, particularly in the area of workplace reforms.

The links between work and road crashes are well established. On average, company drivers travel more than twice the annual distance of private car drivers and have about 50 per cent more incidents. This suggests considerable potential gains can be made by working closely with organisations and employers to improve road safety.

The potential costs of inaction are high. In the past 12 years about half of vehicle-related occupational fatalities occur on a public road in Australia and many people are also killed or seriously injured in motor vehicles or as cyclists or pedestrians getting to and from work. Please refer to Safe Work Australia for the most recent data.

Corporate action can reduce employee involvement in road crashes through workplace policies and practices that value and promote road safety, encourage safe road user behaviour among employees and contractors, and provide for the purchase of vehicles with high safety ratings.

Organisations have legal responsibilities to provide a safe workplace and actively manage for a safety-focussed environment. Specific Australian legislation designed to ensure organisations meet this primary obligation can be found in:

  • The Corporations Act 2001, and
  • Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004

A number of Australian companies and organisations have already implemented road safety related policies. Important innovations include:

  • introducing workplace road safety policies (for example, requiring strict compliance with the road laws from employee drivers and encouraging a focus on reducing driver distractions by requiring pulling over to answer mobile phone calls)
  • focusing on safety behaviours in recruitment and selection
  • including road safety requirements and skills in induction programs to embed a safe driving culture
  • prioritising road safety records in fleet selection and maintenance (for example, requiring 5-star Australasian New Car Assessment Program rated vehicles where possible and ensuring key safety features are fitted to all new vehicles)
  • providing ongoing training and education of staff to build road safety awareness and skills.