The furor over traffic fatalities – in the early 1900s

With talk about the first Google self-driving car crash, one writer reminds us of earlier discussions about cars and accidents:

There’s some precedent for all this, of course. It’s not as though the car as we know it today was thwarted by human deaths. The first recorded traffic fatality in the United States occurred in 1899, in New York City, when a man stepping off a trolley was struck by a taxi.

The three decades that followed were chaotic and deadly. Scholars and justices debated whether the automobile was, perhaps, inherently evil. By the 1920s, cars were causing so many deaths that people in cities like New York and Detroit began throwing parades in an attempt to underscore the need for traffic safety. Tow trucks would haul smashed, totaled vehicles along the course of the parade. From The Detroit News:

“Some wrecks featured mannequin drivers dressed as Satan and bloody corpses as passengers. Children crippled from accidents rode in the back of open cars waving to other children watching from sidewalks. Washington, D.C., and New York City held parades including 10,000 children dressed as ghosts, representing each a death that year. They were followed by grieving young mothers who wore white or gold stars to indicate they’d lost a child.”

Eventually, traffic laws and other safety features—stop lights, brightly painted lanes, speed limits—were standardized. And car-safety technology improved, too. Vehicles got shatterproof windshields, turn signals, parking brakes, and eventually seat belts and airbags. In 1970, about 60,000 people died each year on American roads. By 2013, the number of annual traffic fatalities had been cut almost in half.

I am usually amazed when I look back at historical and sociological work about the major changes in society due to and in response to the car. Even with all the safety implications – tens of thousands of deaths each year – Americans went all in for the car, changing our streets, residential patterns, leisure activities, homes, and numerous other areas.

There are also some similarities with the advent of railroad technology in the mid-1800s where it took some time to develop reliable safety devices. In Forging Industrial Policy, sociologist Frank Dobbin describes the multitude of safety issues in Britain where railroads were allowed a lot of latitude until too many people were dying.

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