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

This is a four-part series on the history of traffic safety reforms in the United States.  Part one is here

Control Paradigm: 1920s-1960s

“…[While] the automobile of today is as nearly perfect as science and industry can make it…the driver, figuratively speaking, is still wearing rompers.  He just hasn’t been able to keep up with improvements made on the road and the machine.”  

-John Maher, Mind over Motor

  Image courtesy of Fighting Traffic Facebook page

Image courtesy of Fighting Traffic Facebook page

The education, engineering, and enforcement efforts of various entities within the prior paradigm were influential in lowering the rate of traffic fatalities.  Given the steady increase in driver registrations, however, the overall number of fatalities continued to increase into the 1920s and 1930s. In 1934, traffic fatalities increased almost 15% to a total of over 36,000 persons.  Rather than surmising a particular threshold of fatalities that would therefore therefore elicit political intervention, Steve Bernadin contends that “motordom members” were powerful enough to overcome divergent interests and rationalize the persistent problem of traffic fatalities. The primary way they did this was to absolve the vehicle–and its primary product of speed–from contempt and place culpability on the driver. 

 During this paradigm, industry reports, magazine articles, and even drivers’ manuals begin to describe the vehicle as a “perfect product”.  In his book Mind over Motor John Maher describes the automobile as “one of the finest products of the American age” while criticizing the driver’s ability to properly handle such a product.  Blanke quotes a 1937 drivers’ manual that describes the automobile as “nearly perfect as science and industry can make it…”.  The alleged accomplishments in automobile safety coupled with the advances in roadway engineering meant that the driver was the final element in attaining a safe driving environment.  Those who eschewed safe driving practices were characterized as inept at best and reckless at worst.  The former was assigned to both new drivers and non-drivers equally; young drivers must learn how to control and maintain their vehicle, while non-drivers must learn that the street is the domain of motorized traffic.  In this regard, both motorists and pedestrians could therefore exhibit reckless or careless behavior.  The more concerning issue, however, was not the inept drivers but the reckless drivers who in the words of Secretary Hoover were the “largest of the contributors” to the rising amount of fatalities.  It was these drivers to whom multiple organizations would appeal. 

Attempts to reach the reckless driver consisted of various voluntary appeals.  Some campaigns used pictures of mangled vehicles and deceased motorists to scare the driver into proper behavior.  Paul Hoffman, President of the Automotive Safety Foundation and former executive for Studebaker, viewed such campaigns as ineffective and propounded that scientific traffic policies are “a rational approach to an emotional problem”.  A collection of organizations researched methods and practices that would help identify the people groups wherein reckless driving may occur.  Jeremy Packer describes how psychologists developed character typologies and sociologists posited theories of estrangement and deviant behavior among adolescents.  Insurance companies paired their actuarial science with voluntary programs like the “Not Over 50 Club” which distributed vehicle stickers for drivers who presumably did not drive over 50 miles per hour. 

Although no longer exclusive to the NSC, the ‘Three E’s’ remained in service during this paradigm.  The role of education in training youth was especially heightened; not only were efforts to encourage playtime in park spaces reinforced, but training materials were geared toward young people with the assumption that they would eventually become drivers.  Regarding engineering, organizations created during the first paradigm (e.g. Institute of Traffic Engineers, American Association of State Highway Officials) worked with Congress to develop roadway studies and traffic safety reports.  The 1946 Action Program for Traffic Safety was a summation of accident prevention policies and practices that municipalities and safety organizations were instructed to use.  Local enforcement mechanisms were less the result of trial and error and more the recommendations of traffic engineers and city managers.  

During the 1940s, representatives of automotive interest groups including Paul Hoffman were looking for momentum at the federal executive and congressional level.  This was especially difficult as the realities of World War II were more pressing to lawmakers.  Nonetheless Hoffman and others worked with Presidents Roosevelt and Truman to advance automotive safety; they maintained that a free-flowing transportation network is crucial in both peacetime and wartime, and after World War II they recruited military leaders and declared a “war against accidents”.  The intent was to elevate the ‘Three E’s’ of traffic safety as an important issue for both congressman and their constituents, with the awareness of the latter encouraging the accountability of the former.  Using similar military-themed rhetoric President Eisenhower launched The Crusade for Traffic Safety in 1954, a media campaign designed to propagate the message of traffic safety throughout the country.  The campaign featured a pledge that included the elements of personal responsibility and morality indicative throughout the control paradigm: “I personally pledge myself to drive and walk safely and think in terms of safety.  I give this pledge in seriousness and earnestness, having considered fully my obligation to protect my life and the lives of my family and my fellow men.”