What is a Safe System Approach?

U.S. DOT adopts a Safe System Approach as the guiding paradigm to address roadway safety.1 The Safe System Approach has been embraced by the transportation community as an effective way to address and mitigate the risks inherent in our enormous and complex transportation system. It works by building and reinforcing multiple layers of protection to both prevent crashes from happening in the first place and minimize the harm caused to those involved when crashes do occur. It is a holistic and comprehensive approach that provides a guiding framework to make places safer for people.

This is a shift from a conventional safety approach because it focuses on both human mistakes AND human vulnerability and designs a system with many redundancies in place to protect everyone. 

U.S. DOT’s National Roadway Safety Strategy and the Department’s ongoing safety programs are working towards a future with zero roadway fatalities and serious injuries. In support of this approach, safety programs are focused on infrastructure, human behavior, responsible oversight of the vehicle and transportation industry, and emergency response. 

Principles of a Safe System Approach

This is a circular diagram about the Safe System Approach. On the circumference is a band with six safe system principles: Death and serious injuries are unacceptable, humans make mistakes, humans are vulnerable, responsibility is shared, safety is proactive, and redundancy is crucial. Inside this, the circle is divided into five sections with logos representing each section: Safer vehicles, safer speeds, safer roads, post-crash care, and safer people.

A Safe System Approach incorporates the following principles:

Death and Serious Injuries are Unacceptable

A Safe System Approach prioritizes the elimination of crashes that result in death and serious injuries.

Humans Make Mistakes

People will inevitably make mistakes and decisions that can lead or contribute to crashes, but the transportation system can be designed and operated to accommodate certain types and levels of human mistakes, and avoid death and serious injuries when a crash occurs.

Humans Are Vulnerable

Human bodies have physical limits for tolerating crash forces before death or serious injury occurs; therefore, it is critical to design and operate a transportation system that is human-centric and accommodates physical human vulnerabilities.

Responsibility is Shared

All stakeholders—including government at all levels, industry, non-profit/advocacy, researchers, and the general public—are vital to preventing fatalities and serious injuries on our roadways.

Safety is Proactive

Proactive tools should be used to identify and address safety issues in the transportation system, rather than waiting for crashes to occur and reacting afterwards.

Redundancy is Crucial

Reducing risks requires that all parts of the transportation system be strengthened, so that if one part fails, the other parts still protect people.

Objectives of a Safe System Approach

Implementation of the NRSS will be arranged around five complementary objectives corresponding to the Safe System Approach elements:

Driver point of view, stopping for a person walking a bike across a road at a crosswalk.

Safer People

Encourage safe, responsible driving and behavior by people who use our roads and create conditions that prioritize their ability to reach their destination unharmed.

A street with a raised median and a marked crosswalk at a roundabout with yield signs and a school bus stopped for boarding passengers at the opposite entrance of the roundabout.

Safer Roads

Design roadway environments to mitigate human mistakes and account for injury tolerances, to encourage safer behaviors, and to facilitate safe travel by the most vulnerable users.

Two people stand examining a new vehicle on the showroom floor of a car dealership.

Safer Vehicles

Expand the availability of vehicle systems and features that help to prevent crashes and minimize the impact of crashes on both occupants and non-occupants.

School Zone sign: Speed Limit 20 when flashing.

Safer Speeds

Promote safer speeds in all roadway environments through a combination of thoughtful, equitable, context-appropriate roadway design, appropriate speed-limit setting, targeted education, outreach campaigns, and enforcement.

A fire truck and ambulance with EMS crews respond at the scene of a car crash.

Post-Crash Care

Enhance the survivability of crashes through expedient access to emergency medical care, while creating a safe working environment for vital first responders and preventing secondary crashes through robust traffic incident management practices.

 FHWA:Safe Roads for a Safer Future, Investment in roadway saf

ety saves lives

Last updated: Thursday, October 13, 2022