What Is Vision Zero? Overview and Effectiveness

The Swedish-born initiative aims to eliminate fatalities and serious injuries from traffic accidents entirely.

Commuters on foot and cycling
DesignSensation / Getty Images

Vision Zero is a global movement to improve road safety and, ultimately, achieve zero traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries among all road users—drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians alike. The Vision Zero Network is a nonprofit campaign in which corporations, communities, and governments at every level come together to advocate for better policy and road conditions and to change the overall public impression that fatal collisions are inevitable.

"Vision Zero starts with the ethical belief that everyone has the right to move safely in their communities," the campaign states, "and that system designers and policymakers share the responsibility to ensure safe systems for travel."

How It Started

Overhead view of roads going into Stockholm city center
The idea originated in Sweden.

Jakob Radlgruber / EyeEm / Getty Images

The campaign originated in Sweden and was first introduced with a zero-by-2020 tagline back in the '90s. It was approved by Swedish parliament in 1997, and all roads built or modified since then have adhered to the Vision Zero standard.

Although Sweden did not meet its original goal of zero fatalities by 2020, it has seen a 74% reduction in road-related fatalities (772 deaths down to 204) between 1990 and 2020. Since implementing Vision Zero, the Swedish government has set updated targets for 2030, including 50% fewer fatalities and 25% fewer serious injuries based on averages from 2017 to 2019.

Over the years, the campaign has spread from Sweden across the world—commitments have since been adopted in Canada, the U.S., and India. Other countries and regions have implemented similar safety measures, possibly borrowing from Vision Zero principles, without publicly adopting the project. Those initiatives include the Campaign for Safe Road Design in the U.K., EuroRAP (the European Road Assessment Programme) in the E.U., and Road to Zero in New Zealand.

Vision Zero in the U.S.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced in 2022 that the estimated number of traffic-related fatalities across the U.S. was at a 16-year high. Almost 50,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2021, the NHTSA said, up an astounding 10.5% from 2020.

In response to the high, always-rising number of road-related deaths, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Bill—aka Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—into law in late 2021. The bill allocated $110 billion to road and bridge repairs and rolled out a Safe Streets and Roads for All program that aims to reduce traffic fatalities.

Cities across the States have also taken their own Vision Zero action: New York City, San Francisco, Austin, Seattle, Boston, and Dallas are a few. Others, such as Los Angeles and Portland, have announced similar projects under different names.

Guiding Principles and Strategy

Windy country road with "slow" painted in big letters
Speed management is one of Vision Zero's top priorities.

Ulrike Schmitt-Hartmann / Getty Images

Vision Zero operates on the mindset that fatal car accidents are preventable, and that a traffic system with zero fatalities doesn't mean one without human error.

The Vision Zero Network identifies its top three priorities as "managing speed," "centering equity," and "engaging communities." Projects start with data collection at the community level and, once the needs of the community are identified, project leaders advocate for change at the policy level. Policy changes could mean putting money toward safer street design, lowering speed limits (speeding kills more than 10,000 people per year in the U.S.), implementing automated speed enforcement, and dealing harsher punishment for speeding offenses, depending on the community.

Equity, the organization says, "includes identifying communities or populations that are disproportionately impacted by traffic deaths and serious injuries, and prioritizing roadway safety investments in these areas. It also means that if police are involved in Vision Zero, the community should make a public commitment to fair and equitable enforcement and ensure transparency and accountability on this commitment."

Environmental Impact of Vision Zero

There's no argument about Vision Zero's potential to save human lives, and more human lives saved is reason enough to make roads safer. But whether improving traffic safety through road maintenance is good for the environment is another story—and one that's long been debated.


Piles of crushed cars
10 million vehicles are discarded every year.

hroe / Getty Images

Economically, motor vehicle crashes cost the U.S. a reported $473.2 billion annually—money that could otherwise be spent on green infrastructure, say, or improving water quality. More directly, car accidents will sometimes cause gas and fluids to leak out and pollute the air, land, and water with toxic chemicals. When the car requires repairing—worse, when it's totaled and needs replacing—the parts that can't be recycled are often sent to landfills. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2016 that 10 million vehicles were sent to salvage yards and scrap facilities every year.

Also, as you know, walking and cycling are fossil fuel-free forms of transit, and if people feel safe when traveling by bike or by foot, that could only mean good things for emissions reduction.


Aerial view of country road under construction
The U.S. generates 600 million tons of construction waste every year.

SimonSkafar / Getty Images

While it's a given that roads should be made safer to protect drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, the process can take a great toll on the environment. The main concerns around road construction are noise, vibrations—which can affect wildlife and cause damage to structures both natural and human-made—pollution, and waste. Dust can pollute the air and end up in water bodies, where it disrupts aquatic life. Perhaps the biggest concern is that 600 million tons of construction waste—from roads, buildings, and bridges—are generated in the U.S. every year. That's more than double the amount of municipal solid waste generated annually.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Why is it called Vision Zero?

    Vision Zero is called such because the original project—in Sweden—aimed to achieve zero fatalities and serious injuries by 2020. The target has not yet been met but is still strived for across the world.

  • What's the difference between Vision Zero and Safe System?

    Safe system is a generic term for road safety initiatives like those outlined by specific projects such as Vision Zero, Toward Zero Deaths, and Sustainable Safety.

  • Is the goal of zero traffic fatalities attainable?

    Some argue that the goal of Vision Zero—to have zero fatalities or serious injuries due to motor vehicle collisions—is a dream scenario. Experts have confirmed it is feasible; and even if it isn't, it's a goal worthy of striving for.

View Article Sources
  1. Whitelegg, John, and Gary Haq. "Vision Zero: Adopting a Target of Zero for Road Traffic Fatalities and Serious Injuries." DfT Horizons Programme, Department for Transport. 2006.

  2. "Sweden Road Safety Report." International Transport Forum. 2021.

  3. "Newly Released Estimates Show Traffic Fatalities Reached a 16-Year High in 2021." National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2022.

  4. "President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law." The White House.

  5. "A Primer on Vision Zero: Advancing Safe Mobility for All." Vision Zero Network.

  6. "Speeding." National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

  7. HORN, Burkhard E., and A. HH. JANSSON. “Traffic Safety and Environment.” IATSS Research, vol. 24, no. 1, 2000, pp. 21–29., https://doi.org/10.1016/s0386-1112(14)60014-5.

  8. "Societal Costs of Unintentional Injuries." National Safety Council. 2020.

  9. "Vehicles Product Stewardship." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2016.

  10. "Sustainable Management of Construction and Demolition Materials." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

  11. Ecola, Liisa, Steven W. Popper, Richard Silberglitt, and Laura Fraade-Blanar. "The Road to Zero." Rand Health Quarterly. 2018.