2040 VisionOpinion

How to save lives: just remember, we’re human!

Sweden’s transformation of one industry has a simple message for all governments, institutions and systems: we’re only human! And, when we understand that – and adopt an evidence-based approach to various risks that we all face – we’ll save lives!

It may seem unlikely that our family law system, or our approach to family separation in general, might have something to learn from a Swedish approach to road safety. But the many parallels – and lessons that can be learnt – derive from the fact that many people can suffer – or even die – in ways that are preventable when we try to impose bureaucratic systems on humans – without recognising that we’re all, erm, human.

Looking at human frailties and behaviours through a criminal justice lens – which is how road accidents have traditionally been viewed (and how we’ve tended to look at everything from drug and alcohol addiction to relationship breakdowns) – costs lives. That’s one of the conclusions of the work of Claes Tingvall, former Director of Traffic Safety for the Swedish Transport Administration, who had a vision of a future with no deaths from road accidents.

Other forms of transport, like aviation or rail travel, enjoy high levels of safety. But, more than one million people die on roads every year. The death toll is both known and highly visible, with many of the deaths being dramatic and reaching mainstream media. Tingvall’s vision was based on an evidence-based transformation of how we view road collisions – one where individual road users did not carry the moral and legal weight of road crashes alone. It became known as “Vision Zero” – “an ‘eradication-based’ approach,” as Tingvall describes it, “that can lead us further than just intermediate targets or simply trying to make things a bit better every year”.

It represented a transformation from old paradigms – views like “cars don’t kill people, people do!” (to co-opt one of the National Rifle Association of America’s more controversial mantras). And a recognition, as Tingvall puts it, that:

As the BBC reports: “One of the key actions that came from Vision Zero was to conduct internal investigations of every fatal road collision in Sweden in parallel to any criminal investigation. The pattern that began to emerge revealed that crash victims were not, as many in the road transport sector assumed, drunk and irresponsible drivers. For the most part, they were people who made small mistakes within a system that had no margin for error.”

Tingvall commissioned Swedish artist Karl Jilg to illustrate the risks for pedestrians and drivers of current road systems.

After decades of government campaigns that aimed at changing driver behaviour, Karl Jilg’s pictures came as a shock. They didn’t depict dangerous drivers – one pair of images didn’t show drivers at all – but a network of roads that seemed to pose an inherent risk to people going about their everyday lives. The onus fell to transport planners – not drivers – to fix that situation.

Driving on our roads is just one activity where, over the years, we’ve failed to fully comprehend the role of normal human behaviour. With images of reckless drivers front-of-mind, we’ve also tended to be quick to judge people involved in accidents – without realising that this mindset was actually fostered, in part, by the automotive industry itself.

“There was a lot of blame directed at the driver, and they were quite willing to go after reckless drivers aggressively because they were a threat to the reputation of the industry,” says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. “Traffic enforcement principles were really developed by the auto industry themselves.”

The behaviour of separating couples is similarly the subject of much blame, especially from the officials – in this case, lawyers or family court judges – who often oversee it. Headlines about “warring couples” and “custody battles” dominate the media too. And yet, in parallel with the findings of Vision Zero:

If we adopt a harm-minimisation or evidence-based approach to family breakups, we quickly see how – as with drug addiction or road accidents – we have failed to account properly for the human dimension. We’ve failed to treat other humans with enough understanding and compassion. And, perhaps, we’ve even failed to recognise or admit that, in other circumstances, that could be us.

For years, the automotive industry, out of self-interest, kept policy-makers focused on blaming drivers, instead of assuming some responsibility for the systems and infrastructure put in place that don’t adequately protect us. So too the legal industry, which has dominated the business of divorce for centuries, has ensured that few of us question the premise that family courts and law is an appropriate system for dealing with family separation. Yet, if we were to design a system from scratch to best protect children from harm if their parents split up, it would surely not resemble a court.

At Two Wishes, we believe that we have a fundamental responsibility to design systems for people that actually recognise and understand that we’re people! Humans. With all the strengths, weaknesses and characteristics that entails.

When we get evidence that shows that many people die or are injured at a particular type of road junction, the locations are often labelled “blackspots” and a need is identified for urgent re-design – or maybe even a bypass.

When we get evidence, as we have, that shows how many people are harmed by passing through a family court system, it’s time too to design that bypass – and to create and promote a different system that’s actually designed to, and capable of protecting and helping children and their families.