Conducting Community Engagement with a Safe System Lens



Over 3,600 people died in traffic crashes in California in 2019; more than one in four people who died was a pedestrian or bicyclist (NHTSA). The burden of death and injury is unequally distributed - based on mode type, on race and ethnicity, and on income - as a consequence of historic and structurally inequitable funding and policy decisions (Archer, Sandt, Santana). Our current road network is a dichotomy of areas that connect people to things they need and underserved communities with restricted mobility. The Safe System approach offers transportation professionals with a new way of approaching safety and to improve roadways and mobility.

Originally introduced in Sweden in 1997, the Safe System approach has been gaining momentum in California and nationally with severalhigh visibility reports and publications by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Towards Zero Foundation, the Safe System Consortium, and the National Safety Council. This approach views human life and health as the paramount consideration when designing a road network (Towards Zero Foundation). The goal of a Safe System is to eliminate fatal and serious injuries for all road users by proactively putting safeguards in place and working towards sustainable mobility.

Traditionally, human behavior was considered to be the primary variable associated with traffic injury. The Safe System approach refocuses efforts to emphasize transportation system design and operation. It inherently places an emphasis on non-motorized users who are at a higher risk of death or serious injury. Most resources, including the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), identify the key components of a Safe System as some combination of safe road users, safe vehicles, safe speeds, safe roads, and post-crash care. This Safe System further anticipates that people will make mistakes or have momentary lapses of attention, and acknowledges that the human body has a limited injury tolerance. This approach works to improve safety for all road users through multiple layers of protection, where no individual layer is 100% protective, but when several layers are combined, the overall risk is reduced.

Few resources, if any, address how to apply the Safe System framework in community engagement and planning efforts. As written, this approach relies primarily on transportation agencies to commit to a paradigm shift and adapt their work accordingly. Through our Community Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Training Program, UC Berkeley Safe Transportation Research and Education Center (SafeTREC) and the nonprofit agency, California Walks (Cal Walks), adapted FHWA’s Safe System elements and principles to not only make it more applicable for grassroots community engagement but also to strengthen the impact of the approach. This brief will provide an overview of our thought process and set the stage for future efforts.

Jill F. Cooper
Publication date: 
September 30, 2021
Publication type: 
Policy Brief