The Safe System Approach: We need to embrace the foundations, not just the pillars

Dr Shaun Helman champions a new philosophy and appeals for everyone in the transport sector to work together, towards a future where road accidents are rare, and non-fatal.

Published on 02 February 2024

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Most of the people I work with in road safety seem to agree with the idea that if we want safer roads, then a radical shift in our thinking is needed.

The safe system approach to road safety, for most, represents the best opportunity for this radical shift. Time and again however, when I speak to those who are in charge of implementing safe system thinking I’m reminded that culture change on this level is not easy, and takes time. In this blog, I’d like to make points that I’ve made before about this. I'm not making these points (again!) just for the sake of it; I'm doing it because I think we need to collectively keep making them again and again to help embed the philosophical shift required.

What is the Safe System Approach?

For some time, road safety was about any number of ‘E’s. Originally it was the three Es - engineering, enforcement, and education. Early in my career at TRL, other Es appeared. I would attend conferences and hear people talking in excited tones about how they had discovered yet another word beginning with the fifth letter of the alphabet that would revolutionise our approach to keeping people safe on the roads. Evaluation was one. Engagement was another. I remember sitting there listening to these presentations and thinking to myself “All of this is fine, but nothing seems to really be changing; we are still talking about applying sticking plasters to the outcome, rather than treating the multiple causes.”

Against this background, the safe system approach is groundbreaking. It recognises that humans are fallible and that road systems should be accommodating of this, minimizing the consequences of inevitable errors. It makes some key assumptions about humans in the road transport system, and treats these as principles on which our approach to road safety should be based. The assumptions are:

  • That is unacceptable that people continue to be killed and seriously injured in return for the gift of road mobility.
  • That humans make mistakes.
  • That humans are fragile and can only tolerate quite low levels of crash forces before serious injury or death results.
  • That the reduction in deaths and serious injuries on the roads is a shared responsibility between those who design build and manage the roads and vehicles, those who use them, and those who provide post crash care.

These principles are the foundation of the safe system approach. Interestingly, however it is not the foundation that is most often spoken about when the safe system is being discussed. Instead it is the five ‘pillars’ of the safe system (safe vehicles, safe roads, safe users, safe, speeds, and better post-crash response) that most often grab the headlines in the slide decks of people presenting on the topic. The analogy here, I guess, is that when you’re looking at a building it is the structure above the ground (in this case the pillars) that are most visible. But without the foundations, the pillars don’t really stand.

Building forgiveness into road safety

When I think about the safe system foundations, the word that most often comes to my mind is ‘forgiveness’ . The system needs to be forgiving in a number of ways. Forgiveness in road safety doesn’t mean ignoring risky behaviours or not striving for improvement in users. Instead, it's about creating an environment where the consequences of a mistake or a poor decision are not fatal or severe. This involves, on a practical level, tangible actions in the five pillars:

  1. Roads that reduce the risk of collisions and are more forgiving in the collisions that do occur
  2. Speed limits that reduce crash forces and again reduce the injuries that result
  3. Vehicles with safety technologies that are forgiving of human mistakes - AEB that stops the car when you fail to do so for example
  4. Users who are educated and aware of their responsibilities to strive for high standards of behaviour, and with some self-awareness of the human tendency to err and promoting a culture of safety on the roads
  5. Effective post-collision care that can again correct for, and forgive, the mishaps that do occur by fixing injuries before they result in the most serious outcomes

The foundations, in other words, promote a set of structures as well as a culture in which forgiveness of errors is the key outcome. The pillars are the structures in which the tangible actions play out; this is why they are the most visible elements of the safe system, but are not the most important elements of 'safe system thinking'. It is not difficult to imagine a future in which there are different 'pillars' of action ('automation' for example); the foundations, though, seem to me to be less malleable.

Changing public perception

To embed the Safe System approach as the norm, a collective change in public perception is required. It's about moving away from a blame culture to a culture of shared responsibility and care that the Safe System sets as its underlying philosophical code. This change won’t happen overnight; it needs continuous effort in educating and engaging with the public - with the principles and foundations, as well as with the pillars.

We must promote understanding and empathy among road users. Acknowledging that we all make mistakes and that these shouldn't cost us our lives is the first step. We should advocate for safer road designs, support laws that reflect this philosophy, and embrace safety technologies in our vehicles and at our roadsides. The public should demand that those managing the roads and building the vehicles provide these. Policy makers and city planners need to design roads and transport systems that prioritize safety, built on the foundations discussed in this blog, as well as implementing the tools and actions in the pillars.


The Safe System approach (just one example of wider systems-thinking) is not just a policy or a set of rules; it's a way of thinking. By being more forgiving of mistakes and understanding the human aspect of road use, we can create a safer, more empathetic road environment. It’s a collective journey towards safety, where every road user, vehicle, and road plays a part. Let's embrace this new philosophy and work together towards a future where road accidents are rare and non-fatal.

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