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

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

Analysis: Responsibility Paradigm, and the 21st Century ‘Traffic Fight’

Norton’s fourth paradigm, which covers the 1980s to the present day, bears similarities to the paradigms of the past.  Although the automobile industry remains governed by safety mandates, this paradigm elevates more responsibility to drivers for the safety of those inside and outside of the vehicle.  The ‘E’s of education and enforcement are instrumental towards this end.  For example, organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and increased law enforcement penalties responded to the acute problem of drunk driving, especially in the 1980s.  Federal and state transportation departments have organized a number of awareness weeks ranging from work zone safety to distracted driving to “Start Seeing Motorcycles”.  The notion that safety is a “shared responsibility” between motorists and pedestrians re-emerged, and various state and local campaigns have encouraged the latter to wear reflective clothing and refrain from texting while walking.  

Image courtesy of    Baltimore Complete Streets

Image courtesy of Baltimore Complete Streets

An interesting feature of the responsibility paradigm is the deviation from the roadway as an automobile-exclusive utility and the willingness to reclaim the roadway for public spaces and other transportation modes.  Eric Dunbaugh refers to these roadways as “livable streets” that respect the adjacent urban built environment and improve the quality of pedestrian walkways. This approach to street design arguably stands in contrast to the engineering efforts in previous paradigms that were chiefly concerned with moving automobile traffic, mitigating congestion, and eliminating road hazards.  Indeed, the roadside design guides of the 1960s included such ‘forgiving design’ features as clear zones and removal of fixed hazardous objects such as trees within a certain buffer (Ibid, 287).  Dunbaugh contends that the design cues of “livable streets” are no less safe than the forgiving design approach, with the former being more context-appropriate in urban areas.  

Roadway reclamation within this paradigm includes both benefits and challenges.  Brian Ladd highlights the traffic-calming benefits that exist within shared roadway space.  John Pucher and Ralph Buehler mention that the most convenient bicycle facilities typically occupy space that was previously allocated exclusively to motor vehicles (2008, 512).  Peter Muller accepts that the automobile will remain in urban settings, but states that coordination with other transportation modes is a more effective response than building additional freeways (2017, 83).

Image courtesy of    Veloce Today

Image courtesy of Veloce Today

Colin Divall’s idea of a “useable past” is especially salient for enriching the discussion around automated vehicles.  The previous paradigms demonstrate how Americans have used technology to improve safety outcomes throughout most of the 20th century.  During the “Safety First” paradigm motordom advocates argued that, in contrast to the horse and carriage, the handling and braking features of automobiles would actually improve traffic safety for pedestrians. During the 1939 World’s Fair, one of the vignettes of General Motors’ Futurama exhibit illustrated a remotely controlled driverless automobile with its passengers playing a board game.  O’Connell and Myers summarize a 1960s conference that outlined approaches to electronically control vehicles ranging from notifications inside the vehicle to fully automated driving that removes the driver from his previous responsibilities.  Underscoring this theme of automation is the shift from disciplining the driver to intelligently controlling the machine being driven.  Although such a shift would resonate with crashworthiness advocates of the 1960s, critics such as the head of engineering mechanics for General Motors argued that electronic implements are more fallible than human drivers.     

Any meaningful discussion on using the past to inform an automated future should include the potential redistribution of the roles and responsibilities of multiple actors including the driver, the insurance company, and the automobile manufacturer with its attendant electronics and software companies. Ethical questions abound: Which actors are culpable in a traffic accident?  How are ethical norms operationalized into computer algorithms?  Can computers negotiate in-the-moment ‘trolley problems’ that result in less harmful and more moral outcomes than a human counterpart? Will intelligent control further reinforce the idea of a street as a unimodal utility at the expense of more vulnerable, less equal roadway users?  The assemblage of power among automobile-oriented interests of previous paradigms suggests a useful precedent from which safety advocates in general and mode-specific interests in particular can learn.

This series provided a brief history of traffic safety reforms in the United States.  Using Norton’s four traffic safety paradigms as a framework for the series, I attempted to show how streets have and continue to be a contested space, not only with the advent of the “horseless carriage” but also with the imminence of automated vehicles.  From municipal traffic engineers to the National Safety Council and to automotive companies, the trajectory of traffic safety reform in the 20th century shows multiple actors using rhetoric, power, and organization to legitimate a particular mode, namely motorized vehicles, to the street.  The persistence of and continued interest in multimodal networks including bicycle, pedestrian, bus and light rail suggest that streets will continue to remain a contested space in the 21st century. 



Bernardin, S. (2015).  Taking the Problem to the People: Traffic Safety from Public Relations to             Political Theory, 1937-1954.  Technology and Culture, Vol. 56, No. 2 (420-439).   

Blanke, D. (2007).  Hell on Wheels: The Promise and Peril of America’s Car Culture, 1900-1940. University Press of Kansas.

Brilliant, A. E. (1965).  Some Aspects of Mass Motorization in Southern California, 1919-1929.    Southern California Quarterly, Vol.47, No. 2 (191-208).

Damon, N. (1958).  The Action Program for Highway Safety.  Annals of the American Academy    of Political and Social Science, Vol. 320, No. 1 (15-26).

Dunbaugh, E. (2005).  Safe Streets, Livable Streets.  Journal of the American Planning                 Association, Vol. 71, No. 3 (283-300).

Esbester, M, and Wetmore, J.M. (2015).  Introduction: Global Perspectives on Road Safety             History.  Technology and Culture, Vol. 56, No. 2 (307-318).

Governors’ Highway Safety Association. (2016).  Everyone Walks: Understanding and Addressing Pedestrian Safety.  Accessed 5 May 2018.

Illinois Department of Transportation. (2015).  Riding Season Here, IDOT Urging Motorists to ‘Start Seeing Motorcycles’.  Accessed 5 May 2018. http://                5.6.15%20Start%20Seeing%20Motorcycles%20FINAL%20with%20coordinates.pdf

Irwin, A. (1985).  Risk and the Control of Technology: Public Policies for Road Traffic Safety in         Britain and the United States.  Dover, New Hampshire: Manchester University Press.

Kelley, B. (2017).  Public Health, Autonomous Automobiles, and the Rush to Market.  Journal of     Public Health Policy, Vol. 38, No. 2 (167-184).

Kröger, F (2016).  Automated Driving in Its Social, Historical and Cultural Contexts.  In Maurer,    M., Gerdes, J.C., Lenz, B., and Winner, H. J.  Autonomous Driving: Technical, Legal, and Social Aspects (41-68).  Springer Open.

Ladd, Brian.  “Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automobile Age.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Martens, K. (2017).  Transport Justice: Designing Fair Transportation Systems.”  New York:             Routledge.

McShane, C. (1994).  Down the Asphalt Path.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Möser, K. (2003).  The Dark Side of ‘Automobilism’, 1900-1930: Violence, War, and the Motor             Car.  Journal of Transport History 3rd series, Vol. 24, No. 2 (238-258).

Muller, P. O. (2017).  Transportation in the Urban Form: Stages in the Spatial Evolution of the American Metropolis.  In Giuliano, G., and Hanson, S.  The Geography of Urban Transportation (57-84). Fourth edition.  New York: The Guilford Press.

Norton, P. (2007).  Street Rivals: Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street.                 Technology and Culture, Vol. 48, No.2 (331-359).

Norton, P. (2015).  Four Paradigms: Traffic Safety in the Twentieth-Century United States.             Technology and Culture, Vol. 56, No 2 (319-334).

Norton, P (2008).  Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.                  Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. 

O’Connell, J., and Myers, A. (1966).  Safety Last: An Indictment of the Auto Industry. New             York: Random House.

Packer, J. (2008).  Mobility without Mayhem: Safety, Cars, and Citizenship.  Durham, NC: Duke        University Press.

Pucher, J., and Buehler, R.  Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.  Transport Reviews Vol. 28, No. 4 (495-528).

United States Federal Highway Administration. (2009).  Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities, 1900-2007.  Accessed 5 May 2018.

Vinsel, L. (2016).  The Smart Road Not Taken.  IEEE Spectrum.  Accessed 5 May 2018.    

Wetmore, J. (2004).  Redefining Risks and Redistributing Responsibilities: Building Networks             to Increase Automobile Safety.  Science, Technology, and Human Values, Vol. 29, No. 3 (377-405).


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

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


Crashworthiness Paradigm: 1960s-1980s

“We have drivers performing millions of maneuvers in their automobile adequately, even overpowering the deficiencies of their automobile…and then they make that one mistake, and should they die for that one mistake?…[W]e should build cars that take into effect that one, or those two mistakes…”  -Ralph Nader, U.S. Senate traffic safety hearings, 1965

Image courtesy of   WNPR  .  Pictured in the foreground is a Chevrolet Corvair, a model that Nader mentioned was poorly designed and especially unsafe for occupants.

Image courtesy of WNPR.  Pictured in the foreground is a Chevrolet Corvair, a model that Nader mentioned was poorly designed and especially unsafe for occupants.

During the 1960s, safety experts and congressmen began to criticize the efficacies of the ‘Three E’s approach especially in regards to its goal of optimizing driver behavior.  The issue of pedestrian safety was less apparent than in previous paradigms.  For many, the decades of educational campaigns, traffic engineering, and enforcement mechanisms were not successful in mitigating the number of vehicle collisions and subsequent fatalities.  Although fatalities declined during World War II in relation to war rations and the amount of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), the total number of deaths and the rate of fatalities per VMT increased during the 1950s and especially during the 1960s. In 1965, for example, vehicle fatalities totaled 48,000 persons, and that number would continue to increase into the 1970s.  So instead of the ‘collision avoidance’ proposition that was advocated in the previous paradigm, safety advocates shifted towards a ‘collision inevitability’ approach that recognized the range of errors that drivers are bound to make behind the wheel.  At a Senate hearing for encouraging new crash-worthy vehicle safety practices, Senator Abraham Ribicoff underscores the ‘collision inevitability’ approach with the following statement:

“The driver has many faults.  He is negligent; he is careless; he is reckless.  We understand that…I think it will be the millennium if you will ever get a situation where the millions and millions of drivers will all be perfect.  They will always be making errors and making mistakes.”

This should not be interpreted as a laissez-faire response to vehicle fatalities but rather as a distinct shift of responsibility from the driver to vehicle, or more specifically the automotive manufacturer.  If drivers would inevitably land on a spectrum between ineptitude and recklessness, then safety experts and advocates must work with automobile companies to reduce the effects of vehicular collisions and lower the risk of injury or death.  Jameson Wetmore describes how safety-oriented researchers and doctors began using the term “second collision”–that between the vehicle’s occupants colliding with the vehicle’s interior–as way to discuss overall risk reduction.  Structural reinforcements to the vehicle in addition to safety improvements within the vehicle’s interior would, according to safety advocates, decrease the intensity of occupant injury and likelihood of fatalities.

The automobile industry was hesitant to incorporate the crashworthiness approach into their business models. One reason was that the previous argument of auto companies–user error is the chief cause of traffic accidents–would be undermined by the positional shift.  Another reason concerned the company bottom line and the marketing efforts towards that end.  During the early stage of this paradigm a number of safety enhancements were proposed, such as collapsible steering columns and padded dashboards.  The “Big Three” auto companies (Ford, Dodge, and Chevrolet) contended that “safety doesn’t sell” and, according to Ladd, they did not include updated safety features as a means to keep costs down and remain competitive.  During the aforementioned Senate hearings, Senator Ribicoff argued that safety should not be optional features subject to marketing input but rather standard on all models: “It is a question of selling him safety or do you have a responsibility of producing a safe car with safety items?”   

Image courtesy of    LBJ Presidential Library

Image courtesy of LBJ Presidential Library

 In 1966 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was established.  The previous claims of the automobile being “perfected by science and industry” were no longer valid, and laws followed that would mandate safety features within new automobiles.  Notably, the total number of vehicle fatalities began decreasing into the 1970s and 1980s.   


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.”


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