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Editorial comment

In 1997, Sweden passed its Vision Zero plan into law, pledging to eliminate road fatalities and injuries. Since then, the country has achieved remarkable progress and now boasts the safest roads in the world: according to a recent article in The Economist, only three Swedes in every 100,000 die on the roads each year – well below the average 5.5 per 100,000 across the EU and 11.4 per 100,000 in the US.

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The reduction in the number of people dying on Sweden’s roads is not unique. Since road accident deaths peaked in the 1970s, the number has been consistently dropping in rich countries (although it is still on the rise in poorer countries as car sales rise). But Sweden has achieved much greater success than others. In analysing the country’s achievements, it is its road planning that should come in for much of the praise. Swedish roads are built with as much thought for safety as for speed or convenience. Measures that may be considered irritating (low urban speed limits) or excessive (building 1500 km of 2+1 roads – where each lane of traffic takes turns to use a middle lane for overtaking) in other areas are now standard in the Scandinavian country. Meanwhile, a tough line on drink driving means that less than 0.25% of drivers tested are over the limit. The next step, suggests The Economist, will be to reduce the impact of human error further – perhaps eventually doing away with the driver altogether. The Swedish car manufacturer, Volvo, will run a pilot programme of driverless cars in Gothenburg in 2017 in partnership with the Swedish transport ministry. Before then, measures that include putting breathalysers in cars to warn against drink driving and the faster implementation of safety features, such as warnings for speeding and unbuckled seatbelts, have been mooted. Whether such moves will enable Sweden to hit its Vision Zero target, only time will tell: but it is well on its way. The coal industry has also made substantial progress in reducing the number of injuries and fatalities that occur in mines around the world. But here too, there is still much work to do. Perhaps the most sobering statistic given by the US Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) in its recent discussion of mining fatalities in the US was that deaths continue to occur that could be prevented by easily available technologies, such as proximity detection systems. Despite a large roll out of such systems in US mines, last year four lives were still lost that could have been prevented by them, according to Joseph Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. Meanwhile, in China, the progress Shenhua has made in improving that country’s mine safety record – which resulted in it winning the Leadership on Mining Safety category at the World Coal Association’s Leadership & Excellence Awards last year – is impressive, but overall the world’s largest coal mining country remains a long way behind its Western counterparts when it comes to mine safety. “We simply do not accept any deaths or injuries on our roads,” said Hans Berg of Sweden’s national transport agency. In such a culture, any accident is a failure. Yet, in these straitened times in the mining industry, discussions about safety can be drowned out by all of the talk about optimising productivity, cutting costs and maximising shareholder value. Yet if there is even one miner that does not return home at the end of shift, it does not matter how much money his or her company makes or how much value it is creating, it is still a failure.