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The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Dr Matts Belin

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Dr Matts Belin

Lisa Owen: Welcome back. After years of declining, our road toll is on the way up again. 323 people have died so far this year already. Just five fewer in the whole of last year and more than in 2015. Now, Auckland council have brought a Swedish expert to New Zealand to explain a new approach – Vision Zero. Dr Matts Belin joins me now. Hello.
Dr Matts Belin: Thank you for having me. Thank you.

Our deaths on the roads, fatalities, seven people die per 100,000. What do you think of that figure? Is it high?
From an international perspective, it’s something in the high income countries that’s quite good if you compare with the low income countries, for example. But when Sweden adopted this Vision Zero in 1997 - so we celebrated the 20th anniversary - when we started with our programme, we had around seven fatalities per 100,000, but now we have less than three. 2.7, actually.
So you’ve managed to halve the number of people dying in fatal accidents.
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
So it’s possible?
It’s possible.
What would we need to do to change that number in New Zeal and? Do we have to drop the speed limit?
Well, it’s important to see that safety’s a very… you have to have a system-wide perspective on safety. When we started to work with Vision Zero in the late ‘90s, you start with a kind of ethical imperative that it can never be accepted that people get killed and serious injury in the traffic, but Vision Zero is also a new strategy. It differs from the traditional way that we work with safety. In the traditional approach, you tried to create the perfect human being who is doing the right thing all the time, and you put the ultimate responsibility of safety on us as individual road users. But in a Vision Zero approach, you don’t think that you can create a perfect human being and you have to accept that you have young people, you have old people, you have all kinds of people using this transport system, and you have to accommodate for them because people make mistakes.
So you accept that people make mistakes and instead of concentrating just on the people, you concentrate on the engineering and design more.
Absolutely. That is one of the important things because you would like to control for harmful energy, for example.
So we in New Zealand concentrate very much on drivers’ behaviour, educating them about using their cell phones, about speeding, but do you think we should just accept that some people are always going to be bad drivers, some people are always going to use their phones, some people are always going to speed?
Yeah, absolutely. At least, that is what our Vision Zero is about. It’s a new philosophy. It’s a new strategy to work with safety, and a good thing, because when it was adopted in 1997, it was only a piece of paper, you know? And implementation is a different story. We have been able to go from an idea to implementation. So when you go to Sweden now, compare how it looked like in the late ‘90s and nowadays, you will see a tremendous change – both in the rural areas and also in the urban areas.
Let’s talk about specific things. On many New Zealand roads where we can go 100km/h, the traffic is coming at each other and there’s nothing between the cars. There’s no physical barrier. Under your system…?
So we start with the knowledge now that if you are in a modern car and you crash with another modern car, up to 80km is quite safe but over 80km, you will have a very steep increase of the risk to get killed or seriously injured. So that’s why when we design our rural network now, if we would like higher speed than 80km, we have to do something about head-on collisions. Now we have a large programme with a large network with ‘2 plus 1’ road where we have a middle barrier so we can allow higher speed on this road but we eliminate the head-on collisions. Those roads are now 90% safer than they used to be.
What about cyclists? Should cyclists are cars ever share the road?
Well, the first thing and the important thing is to separate of course. But in an urban area, you have lots of interaction between pedestrians and cyclists and so on, and when you design the urban area, you have to consider that situation. In Sweden now, we aim for 30km in those intersections so you will see lots of roundabouts, lots of speed bumps and that sort of thing because we would like to make it safe for the unprotected road users.
To be clear, if cyclists and cars are sharing, you would have some kind of physical separation, and in the cities, you’re down to 30km/h.
Yeah. At least in the conflict zones, where you’re in the intersections and that sort of thing. We aim for 30km or 40km.
How do drivers react to that? Because when I told the people in the studio ‘30km/h’, they were like, ‘too slow’.
Yeah. But you have to realise that if you get hit by a car at 50km, the risk that you get killed is more than 80%. If you get hit by a car at 30km, the risk is less than 10% so it’s a dramatic difference between 30km or 40km or 50km, and we, as a driver, don’t understand this. You need to put lots of responsibility on us as system designers and we need to take more responsibility to make sure that we have a safe system for all road users.
People listening to this, even people who think this is a good idea, will probably think ‘this sounds very expensive’. Is it?
Well, it will cost money of course to design things and you have to be persistent and you have to have long-term strategies. But face it. When it comes to a rural area, for example, if you build a motorway in Sweden it costs around one billion per saved life so it’s very expensive.
One billion per saved life?
Yeah, But these ’2 plus 1’ roads, when we started to invest in them, they cost only 30 million per saved life, so it very much depends on how you’re using your resources and how you work within the transport sector, I would say.
So if we were to adopt this approach in New Zealand, how long do you think it would be before we started to see a result in the number of deaths?
You need to work both in the short-term and in the long-term, but the long-term starts today so that’s important. But in the short-term, you probably will need lots of policing, actually, to get control of the situation. But what we have seen in Sweden now, because the growth of fatalities in many Western countries now because of the economic activity starts to increase again. In Sweden, due to that, we have done so much with the safe system. We don’t feel the same pressure that we used to do, so it’s extremely important both to work in the short-term and in the long-term perspective.
It’s very interesting to talk to you this morning, Dr Belin. Thanks for joining me this morning. And if you want to hear more about ‘Vision Zero’, Matts Belin will be speaking at an event in Auckland on Wednesday.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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