The Dutch concept of "Duurzaam Veilig", Sustainable Safety, has lead to this country having some of the safest roads in the world. Over ten years, between 1998 and 2007, the number of traffic fatalities in the Netherlands fell by an average of 5% per year due to the policies within the framework of "Duurzaam Veilig". This is a decrease of 300-400 deaths overall, more than a 30% improvement in safety for the already relatively safe Dutch road network.
So what is "Duurzaam Veilig" and what does this mean ? Let's start with what it is not. Frequently I see from the UK that there are calls for drivers to be better educated, for cyclists to be better educated, for pedestrians to wear brighter clothing so they are seen more easily and to take the responsibility for avoiding being hit by motor vehicles. This is not sustainable safety. Sustainable safety is not about punishing people for making mistakes, but about preventing those mistakes from occurring.
While a good level of education of drivers in particular (as they are the ones bringing lethal force to the roads) is important, it is never possible to completely eliminate the chance of error, or of frustration leading to violent behaviour, if conflict is designed into the way in which roads are used. What's more, people are often tired or distracted. These things cannot be solved by education, they are a result of being human.
What the Dutch have done is to reduce the frequency of conflict between road users and to to reduce the lethality of those crashes which still inevitably occur. This has involved changes in infrastructure to keep vulnerable road users away from the lethal force of motor vehicles, design of junctions so that routes do not cross each other at speed, as well as some changes in the law and education of road users about how to behave in a safe way (i.e. drunk driving, taking a break on long journeys...).
Speed limit reductions are a useful tool, both in town and in rural areas (but note that merely posting speed limit signs is not enough on its own). Out of a total of 120000 km of roads in the Netherlands, 41000 km have had the speed limit reduced from 50 km/h to 30 km/h roads and over 33000 km have been reduced from 80 km/h to 60 km/h. From the article: "Currently over 70% of all 30km/h neighbourhood connector roads have speeds reduced at intersections and/or stretches of road, and 45% of 60km/h roads." It is estimated that 51 to 77 traffic fatalities were prevented by the 30 km/h roads and 60 more due to the rural 60 km/h roads.
On many of the 30 km/h roads, measures have been taken to exclude cars.
Also, roundabout construction is credited with saving an estimated 11 lives. However, it goes beyond this. Traffic light junctions in the Netherlands do not work in the same way as similar junctions in the UK. In most cases, drivers who have a green light can go without having to negotiate with other drivers or cyclists who also have a green light but who are travelling in different directions. The conflict between, for instance, cyclists travelling straight on and motorists turning right has been removed by junction design. What's more, cyclists can avoid many traffic lights therefore avoiding all the danger caused by those junctions.
The measures have proven to be socially cost-effective, as benefits are a factor of four higher than costs. It's a common theme with Dutch policies concerning transport and in particular cycling that measures are not seen as a cost, but as a benefit. The Netherlands is a rich nation, in part due to sensible design of roads.
Of course it's all OK to have the world's safest roads, but to influence people to ride bikes you also need Subjective Safety to make cycling feel safe enough that people want to do it, and want their children to do it too. This has been addressed by a number of means, leading to the world's highest rate of cycling, and happily the same things which increase real safety and work for sustainable safety also work to increase subjective safety. The result is the highest rate of cycling in the world, with very high participation by the broadest possible population of cyclists, and what this means sometimes takes people by surprise.
Read also another blog post which explains about the importance of Sustainable Safety. Also about how the necessary segregation of cyclists from drivers is achieved even without cycle-paths because cycling routes are unravelled from driving routes.