Vision Zero Sets the Standard for Speed Management

By Bob Murphy, PE, PTOE, RLS, Vice President and Transportation South Regional Practice Leader


According to the National Safety Council (NSC), the United States has experienced at least 40,000 motor vehicle deaths every year for the past three years. This number is not only alarming, but also devastating since most incidents can be prevented. Transportation planning and engineering professionals play a vital role in helping to reduce this number. Vision Zero is a multi-national road traffic safety project that aims to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all. Initially implemented in Sweden in the 1990s, this strategy has seen success across Europe and is now gaining momentum and being adopted in cities throughout the United States.

The goal of Vision Zero is to prioritize safety above other considerations, such as mobility. Numerous associations and interest groups have partnered with NSC and the U.S. Department of Transportation in an effort to eliminate traffic fatalities in the United States within 30 years. As a steering group member, the Institute of Transportation Engineers created a resource hub aimed at providing professionals in the industry with the necessary tools related to effective speed management and road design. The information in the resource hub is broken down into four categories:

  • Speed as a safety problem
  • Setting speed limits
  • Measures for managing speed
  • Creating a speed management program.


Speed as a Safety Problem

A large percentage of the motor vehicle deaths that occurred over the last three years were a result of speeding. When motorists travel too fast for conditions, speed becomes unsafe and the likelihood of a serious crash or fatality increases. While there are many factors that dictate the speed at which motorists travel, it is important to consider the surrounding setting, including roadway features, environmental circumstances, other road users and most importantly the speed limit. Transportation professionals are responsible for designing roads and setting appropriate speed limits in order to create a safe environment for all users. This is especially critical for non-motorized users, including pedestrians and bicyclists.


Setting Speed Limits

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has identified three specific methods and approaches transportation professionals use to set speed limits.

Engineering, Expert System and Safe System Approaches Infographic

Influenced by the set speed limit, most drivers will select a speed they feel is reasonable and safe. Ideally their operating speed is the same as the design speed selected.


Measures for Managing Speed

Proper speed management ensures that roadway users are operating at speeds that are safe and appropriate for the given roadway environment. This helps protect vulnerable roadway users like pedestrians and bicyclists from unsafe conditions caused by vehicle speed. Transportation professionals can implement the three E’s – engineering, enforcement and education – to help create safe streets.

Engineering strategies and countermeasures can be used to change behavior on the road. Examples include implementing a road facility like a roundabout or speed hump, redesigning a road to be a complete street or applying traffic calming measures like horizontal and vertical deflections or street width reductions.

Enforcement for speed management is critical to achieving safe roads. Traditional approaches involve patrol officers monitoring a site where speeding or crashes have occurred. Enforcement of speed limits can also be done through the use of automated speed cameras. These units are typically mounted in fixed locations and violation evidence is processed and reviewed in an office environment. It is important that all of this data is given to transportation professionals to assist in the evaluation of road designs.

Educating the public is another valuable component of speed management. It is important for drivers to understand how and why speed limits are set. Campaigns can be used to communicate the importance of obeying speed limits and the potential consequences. Teaming with highway safety partners, traffic safety stakeholders, or health and medical communities can also be a successful way to disseminate these important messages. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration created a speed campaign toolkit, which provides marketing materials and ideas that can be used to support various speed management initiatives.

The Three Es of Traffic Safety Infographic
Collectively, the three E’s of traffic safety can have a powerful impact on driver safety.

Creating a Speed Management Program

There are numerous benefits to creating a speed management program, and the process can be completed efficiently with the help of several resources. This includes working with a stakeholder group to develop goals, timelines, materials and methods. This group can use collected data like crash records, road conditions, speed surveys and citizen concerns to identify the speed-related issues that need to be addressed and identify countermeasures that can effectively manage the situations. With issues identified and solutions discussed, an action plan can be developed and implemented. This program should be applied across jurisdictions that are responsible for speed and safety and, as it evolves, evaluations should be conducted to measure the success of each of the projects. Overall objectives include:

  • Reduced fatalities and serious injuries
  • Enhanced safety for pedestrians, cyclists and other road users
  • A community-wide culture where safety is a top priority.

Transportation professionals play a critical role in safely managing motorists’ speeds and their expertise and support is needed in order to achieve the goal of Vision Zero by 2050. By applying these safe system approaches they can help educate drivers on the risks and consequences of speeding, design for speeds that are safe and appropriate for the given roadway environment, and protect vulnerable roadway users from unsafe conditions.