A History of Traffic Safety in the United States: Part One

Image courtesy of    Shorpy

Image courtesy of Shorpy

Vision Zero. Complete Streets. Safe Routes to School.  “Awareness Weeks”.  Each of these initiatives highlight the interest of many governmental agencies and advocacy groups to provide safe transportation networks for motorists and active transportation modes alike.   Such initiatives regarding traffic safety in general, and the reduction of traffic fatalities in particular, are not new but in fact part of a broad history of traffic-related safety reforms.  What can we learn from safety reforms of the past, particularly between motorists and pedestrians?  In what ways did the efforts of administrative, political, and professional interest groups shift societal perceptions of the risks and responsibilities associated with driving or walking?  Given the persistency of complex, multimodal transportation networks in urban settings, a larger question exists: Who are streets for? 

This is a four-part series on the history of traffic safety in the United States. The overview will focus on the safety conflicts that emerged during the proliferation of the automobile in the early- to mid-20th century.  Each post will analyze the evolution of traffic safety paradigms from the early 1900s to present as described by Peter Norton.  Side note - most of the images have been sourced from research that Peter Norton has done over the years.  His work serves as the inspiration for this series. A consideration of how historical traffic safety reforms can inform contemporary dialogue on automated vehicles is also included. 

“Safety First” Paradigm: 1900s-1920s

“It is quite generally understood that roads are for the common use of all and not the private property of a few rich enthusiasts…[these rights] come to him through no statute law.  The doctrine that streets are for the public is part of our common law and is so old that we may safely hazard a guess that it is coeval with the existence of highways themselves…” 

 -John Farson, President, American Automobile Association, 1906

The first recorded traffic fatality between a vehicle and a pedestrian occurred on September 3, 1899 in New York City.  Arthur Smith, the driver of a new “electric carriage”, attempted to pass a streetcar on the right when he hit New York realtor H. H. Bliss who was exiting a streetcar. The incident exemplifies the nascent conflict between motorists and non-motorists; whereas Mr. Bliss would have considered his presence in the roadway as normative behavior, Mr. Smith may have tacitly understood that streets are for moving traffic.  Bliss’ death was not an outlier but rather the beginning of a trend of traffic fatalities involving motorists and pedestrians.  In 1906 the U.S. Census included motor vehicle collisions as a significant cause of death in the fifteen states that were reporting. 

The phenomena of vehicular collisions continued in the 1910s and became especially acute in the 1920s when over 20,000 people were killed in that decade. Some common characteristics emerged.  The majority of fatalities involved non-motorists, specifically pedestrians and children, and they occurred in dense urban areas. In fact, pedestrians comprised over two-thirds of traffic fatalities in municipalities with a population of 25,000 persons or higher.

The responses of both rural and urban dwellers alike included anger, accusation, and grief.  Brian Ladd shares accounts of rural residents retaliating against what they perceived as a mis-user of roads.  Folks were known to throw stones at drivers, plow up roads, and even tie ropes and wires across the road to prevent drivers from crossing. Examples of sanctioned enforcement within towns and cities abound as well: Seabrook, New Hampshire was one of the first communities to set up a “speed trap” for motorists while municipalities such as Glencoe, Illinois installed a speed bump across its primary road.   Non-motorists characterized automobile owners as an elite group of “joy riders” whose leisurely pursuits disrupted the in-common character of the street.  Municipalities and organizations in particular conducted a range of public displays during this paradigm to mourn the dead and call attention to the issue.  Cities such as Washington, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis erected monuments to honor those killed in traffic collisions, namely children.  Local safety movements often constructed more macabre displays; for example, in 1920 a float in the Milwaukee Safety Week parade included a crashed car driven by a character resembling Satan.  City newspapers amplified this, characterizing the automobile as the Grim Reaper or the “Modern Moloch”.



These local safety events were initiated by member affiliates of the National Safety Council (NSC). Established in 1913, the NSC was the first nationally organized effort to counter the problem of traffic accidents.  Its slogan, “Safety First”, was adopted by motorists and non-motorists alike; both groups initially subscribed to the notion that a commitment to safety would foster positive outcomes for all users of the roadway.  

The NSC was particularly known for how it operationalized the ‘Three E’s’ of education, engineering, and enforcement to its local chapters. Educational campaigns made up a large portion of the organization’s efforts; these campaigns included the recruitment of older children to serve as crossing guards as well as the encouragement of families to spend playtime in parks rather than in streets.  Municipalities used educational campaigns and regulatory tools to curb children playing in the streets as well.  In his book “Down the Asphalt Path”, Clay McShane notes that the New York Police Department spent a season arresting children who were caught playing in the street.

Engineers were viewed as playing an instrumental role in the reduction of traffic accidents.  The idea that roadways existed for the utilitarian purpose of moving traffic emerged in the late 1800s.  Engineering periodicals began referring to select streets as ‘arteries’ for traffic movement, while one engineer declared that the “facility of communication” was critical for human progress.  In this regard, a street became less of a multi-activity public realm and more of a public utility of which movement, not mobility or accessibility, was the primary aim.  Ostensibly, the enhancement of auto-mobility would reduce traffic congestion and yield improvements in traffic safety.  Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover highlights this potential during the 1926 National Conference on Street and Highway Safety when he says, “…if we are to find a permanent solution for the problem of traffic accidents we must at the same time discover a permanent solution for the problem of traffic itself.”  

The ‘enforcement’ element of the ‘Three E’s’ was largely performed through trial-and-error experiments by municipal police departments.  Long before federal funding mechanisms or engineering designs were in place, police officers worked to move, calm, and prohibit vehicle traffic within existing urban constraints .  Notably, police officials employed different materials or products to assist with traffic control and vehicle speed in particular.  Posts placed at the center of an intersection were referred to as “silent policemen” and encouraged drivers to make wide left turns instead of cutting corners.  Some cities used the “Milwaukee Mushroom”, an illuminated steel dome that was placed in a roadway to guide and calm traffic.  

The emphasis on vehicle speed reduction met a potential technological solution: The installation of mechanical governors on automobile engines.  Such an innovation, when paired with street infrastructure solutions like silent policemen, could phase out the need for traffic police attempting to reduce vehicle speeds in urban settings. In 1923, nearly ten percent of Cincinnati residents signed a petition to establish a local ordinance requiring all motor vehicles to have governors that would limit speeds to 25 miles per hour.  Pro-motoring interests in the city responded with a successful local opposition campaign, and the prospect of further legal or mechanical restrictions influenced auto advocates to organize regional and national campaigns beyond the efforts of the NSC. 

Image courtesy of Peter Norton

Image courtesy of Peter Norton

The tools deployed by what Peter Norton calls “motordom” were markedly similar to those of non-motorists in years prior.  Whereas the elite motorists were characterized as “joyriders”, city dwellers who walked in the street were called “jaywalkers”, people whose walking habits were out of place in a motorized city.  Jaywalking campaigns were conducted across the country; the Boy Scouts distributed anti-jaywalking leaflets, and parades with floats of so-called jaywalkers called attention to the unsafe practice. Automobile interest groups began leaving the NSC to establish their own safety organizations, many of which were funded by the automobile industry. These organizations, along with automobile touring clubs, created their own publications that aimed to redistribute the responsibilities of safety on public roadways.  Touring Topics magazine argued for all pedestrians to take “a personal course in automobile driving” to rectify the practice of jaywalking.  The Automobile Club of Southern California used radio airtime to promote “pedestrian control” practices prior to a bond measure to fund pedestrian tunnels in Los Angeles.  The press release for the 1924 National Conference on Street and Highway Safety states that “pedestrians are often as flagrant offenders” as drivers . Such examples illustrate that the “Safety First” paradigm was primarily one of social, not physical, reconstruction.

Image courtesy of Peter Norton

Image courtesy of Peter Norton