Just returning from Sweden where the highway fatality rate is a marvel of modern transportation policy. Long before Sweden adopted a Vision Zero approach to reducing highway fatalities the country set itself apart from most others with a 0.02 blood alcohol limit for drivers. There is no question that this has contributed significantly to Sweden’s annual highway fatality rate per 100,000 population: 2.8.
The only country with a lower fatality rate than Sweden, according to the World Health Organization, is Iceland. I swear I detected a slight lip curl and eyebrow twitch on the part of my Swedish colleagues at the reminder that some other country was surpassing their admirable highway fatality reduction performance.
By comparison, the highway fatality rate in the U.S. is more than three times Sweden’s rate – 10.6. How has Sweden achieved this? Is there something in the water?
The allowable blood alcohol level for drivers in Sweden is 0.02. Sweden has, in effect, adopted a zero tolerance policy for alcohol consumption prior to driving. An “allowable” legal level of 0.02 leaves no wiggle room whatsoever.
Just a few weeks ago, Sweden’s minister for Higher Education, Aida Hadzialic, was breathalyzed while returning from a concert in Copenhagen at 0.02. She was charged with driving while under the influence of alcohol and subsequently resigned. (It’s worth noting that the “allowable” blood alcohol level in Denmark is 0.05 – so as the minister crossed the bridge from Denmark to Sweden she became an outlaw.)
Swedes will tell you that this driving restriction is deeply embedded in the culture and no one tests its bounds. This contrasts mightily with the U.S., as an example, where the 0.08 allowable blood alcohol level has drinkers in bars checking their watches to see if they can sneak in one more drink. In fact, state-level Department of Motor Vehicle communications warn that 0.08 means only one drink per hour.
By comparison to Sweden, the US DMV mentality practically recommends or advises one drink per hour. A 0.08 “allowable” blood alcohol level creates an unbearable temptation for many – while vaguely equating all drinks as equally deleterious – not if you’re getting the 20+-ouncer at the football game!
The Swedes are different. They enter navigation destination information by hand while driving because it would be more dangerous to pull over to do so – right? But the zero tolerance for alcohol in the blood while driving is serious business that has produced an admirable outcome.
Sweden, of course, hasn’t stopped there and the announcement this week that Autoliv was partnering with Volvo Cars to create an automated driving joint venture was just the latest indication that the country will remain a nexus for safe driving technology for the foreseeable future. A notable postscript is the burgeoning collaboration with Chinese car makers in the form of Geely’s ownership of Volvo Cars, the emergence of NEVS (National Electric Vehicle Sweden AB) from the ashes of Saab and the arrival of China Euro Vehicle Technology AB (2000 employees and growing).
The collaboration of the country with the safest roads and the country with the largest and fastest growing auto market with the most dangerous roads in the world is intriguing. It’s hardly a coincidence that Volvo’s market prospects are on the rise.