How to Save Lives in Road Traffic ? an Ethical Approach

How to Save Lives in Road Traffic ? an Ethical Approach


J Nihlen Fahlquist, Royal Institute of Technology, SE


In this paper, the need to analyse traffic safety from an ethical perspective is addressed and some examples, including the question of how to distribute responsibility, are introduced.


Surely most traffic safety professionals have contemplated ethical questions, for example when they reflect on what is a morally acceptable way to prevent drunk driving ? should we punish the drunk drivers harder or is it better to install alcohol interlocks in all cars? A closely related question is the following. Who is responsible for drunk driving ? the drunk drivers or the system designers?

This is an example of how ethically relevant questions already exist within the field of traffic safety. What ethicists can to contribute is to analyze, question, systematize and categorize these intuitions with the help of ethical conceptual frameworks.

Bioethics and medical ethics is an established area of research and professional committees and expert panels are common. Traffic safety and traffic research should be subjected to the same kind of ethical scrutiny.

About 1, 2 million people are killed globally every year in the road traffic system. Hence, this is a substantial public health problem with significant ethical implications. The need to analyse the ethical aspects of traffic safety has become even more urgent due to some recent events and tendencies, for example the adoption of Vision Zero in Sweden and Norway and the technological development allowing us to control people?s behaviour. In the presentation, some of the ethical problems that arise in relation to traffic safety policies, laws and technologies are introduced. The questions presented and discussed are paternalism, privacy, responsibility and suicides committed in the road traffic system.

Examples of Ethical Problems in Traffic Safety

When coercive laws on safety, for example laws that force people to wear bicycle helmets and seatbelts or to install alcohol interlocks and so forth are introduced, the question of paternalism may be raised. Does the government have a right to ?force? people to be safe? Should people be allowed to take risks as long as they do not harm others or should the government ?save? people against their own will?

When devices such as surveillance cameras are used to register the behaviour of drivers, questions of how to balance people?s right to privacy on the one hand and safety on the other arise.

Responsibility is a much-debated concept in Ethics and it is useful to distinguish between causal responsibility, blame and forward-looking responsibility when analysing traffic safety. The Swedish Vision Zero entailed a fundamentally new view on responsibility and traffic safety. Prior to the change, individuals were the main subjects of responsibility whereas Vision Zero made the system designers ultimately responsibility. Using the three-component model clarifies what is meant by this shift. Moreover, how we interpret and ascribe responsibility affects the number of fatalities. If we are satisfied with assigning responsibility to the individuals and assume that they are the ones causing the accidents and hence, they are responsible, little will be done to improve safety. On the other hand, if we decide that road maintainers and vehicle producers are co-responsible or ultimately responsible we focus on the future and how to solve the general problem of traffic deaths.

Road Traffic Suicides
Whether suspected suicides should be included in accident statistics and how we should manage the problem of people committing suicides in road traffic is an ethical question which should be carefully analyzed and discussed. It has been shown that many suicides are preventable. People committing suicide in road traffic often suffer from mental disorders and alcohol misuse. If these people are recognized and diagnosed, traffic suicides may be prevented. However, while this has to do with the underlying causes of suicide there are physical measures that can be taken in order to stop impulses to commit suicide. Just like safety barriers may be erected to prevent people from jumping off a bridge, similar things can surely be done in the road traffic system to prevent suicides. Public health professionals and traffic safety professionals should work together to counter underlying as well as triggering causes.

Moreover, suicidal drivers represent a substantial fatal risk for other road-users. Thus, working to prevent driver suicides would improve general traffic safety as well.

We can no longer accept traffic deaths as inevitable and we have to acknowledge that they represent a growing global public health problem. Hence, it is morally imperative to do all we can to reduce the fatal risks associated with using the road transport system. However, the measures adopted to save people?s lives should be analyzed and discussed from an ethical perspective at least for two reasons. First, our ethical premises, for example how we distribute responsibility, affect the number of fatalities. Secondly, there are other values at stake besides safety (for example protection of the environment, an accessible transport system, individuals? right to privacy) and a discussion on how to strike an effective and morally acceptable balance and how to manage potential conflicts of values is needed.


Association for European Transport