Murder Machines: Why Cars Will Kill 30,000 Americans This Year

March 10th, 2014

boston fatalities

There’s an open secret in America: If you want to kill someone, do it with a car. As long as you’re sober, chances are you’ll never be charged with any crime, much less manslaughter. Over the past hundred years, as automobiles have been woven into the fabric of our daily lives, our legal system has undermined public safety, and we’ve been collectively trained to think of these deaths as unavoidable “accidents” or acts of God. Today, despite the efforts of major public-health agencies and grassroots safety campaigns, few are aware that car crashes are the number one cause of death for Americans under 35. But it wasn’t always this way.

“At some point, we decided that somebody on a bike or on foot is not traffic, but an obstruction to traffic.”

“If you look at newspapers from American cities in the 1910s and ’20s, you’ll find a lot of anger at cars and drivers, really an incredible amount,” says Peter Norton, the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. “My impression is that you’d find more caricatures of the Grim Reaper driving a car over innocent children than you would images of Uncle Sam.”

Though various automobiles powered by steam, gas, and electricity were produced in the late 19th century, only a handful of these cars actually made it onto the roads due to high costs and unreliable technologies. That changed in 1908, when Ford’s famous Model T standardized manufacturing methods and allowed for true mass production, making the car affordable to those without extreme wealth. By 1915, the number of registered motor vehicles was in the millions.

Top: A photo of a fatal car wreck in Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1933. Via the Boston Public Library. Above: The New York Times coverage of car violence from November 23, 1924.

Top: A photo of a fatal car wreck in Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1933. Via the Boston Public Library. Above: The New York Times coverage of car violence from November 23, 1924.

Within a decade, the number of car collisions and fatalities skyrocketed. In the first four years after World War I, more Americans died in auto accidents than had been killed during battle in Europe, but our legal system wasn’t catching on. The negative effects of this unprecedented shift in transportation were especially felt in urban areas, where road space was limited and pedestrian habits were powerfully ingrained.

For those of us who grew up with cars, it’s difficult to conceptualize American streets before automobiles were everywhere. “Imagine a busy corridor in an airport, or a crowded city park, where everybody’s moving around, and everybody’s got business to do,” says Norton. “Pedestrians favored the sidewalk because that was cleaner and you were less likely to have a vehicle bump against you, but pedestrians also went anywhere they wanted in the street, and there were no crosswalks and very few signs. It was a real free-for-all.”

A typical busy street scene on Sixth Avenue in New York City shows how pedestrians rules the roadways before automobiles arrived, circa 1903. Via Shorpy.

A typical busy street scene on Sixth Avenue in New York City shows how pedestrians ruled the roadways before automobiles arrived, circa 1903. Via Shorpy.

Roads were seen as a public space, which all citizens had an equal right to, even children at play. “Common law tended to pin responsibility on the person operating the heavier or more dangerous vehicle,” says Norton, “so there was a bias in favor of the pedestrian.” Since people on foot ruled the road, collisions weren’t a major issue: Streetcars and horse-drawn carriages yielded right of way to pedestrians and slowed to a human pace. The fastest traffic went around 10 to 12 miles per hour, and few vehicles even had the capacity to reach higher speeds.

“The real battle is for people’s minds, and this mental model of what a street is for.”

In rural areas, the car was generally welcomed as an antidote to extreme isolation, but in cities with dense neighborhoods and many alternate methods of transit, most viewed private vehicles as an unnecessary luxury. “The most popular term of derision for a motorist was a ‘joyrider,’ and that was originally directed at chauffeurs,” says Norton. “Most of the earliest cars had professional drivers who would drop their passengers somewhere, and were expected to pick them up again later. But in the meantime, they could drive around, and they got this reputation for speeding around wildly, so they were called joyriders.”

Eventually, the term spread to all types of automobile drivers, along with pejoratives like “vampire driver” or “death driver.” Political cartoons featured violent imagery of so-called “speed demons” murdering innocents as they plowed through city streets in their uncontrollable vehicles. Other editorials accused drivers of being afflicted with “motor madness” or “motor rabies,” which implied an addiction to speed at the expense of human life.

This cartoon from 1909 shows the outrage felt by many Americans that wealthy motorists could hurt others without consequence. Via the Library of Congress.

This cartoon from 1909 shows the outrage felt by many Americans that wealthy motorists could hurt others without consequence. Via the Library of Congress.

In an effort to keep traffic flowing and solve legal disputes, New York City became the first municipality in America to adopt an official traffic code in 1903, when most roadways had no signage or traffic controls whatsoever. Speed limits were gradually adopted in urban areas across the country, typically with a maximum of 10 mph that dropped to 8 mph at intersections.

By the 1910s, many cities were working to improve their most dangerous crossings. One of the first tactics was regulating left-turns, which was usually accomplished by installing a solid column or “silent policeman” at the center of busy intersections that forced vehicles to navigate around it. Cars had to pass this mid-point before turning left, preventing them from cutting corners and speeding recklessly into oncoming traffic.

Left, a patent for a Silent Policeman traffic post, and right, an ad for the Cutter Company's lighted post, both from 1918.

Left, a patent for a Silent Policeman traffic post, and right, an ad for the Cutter Company’s lighted post, both from 1918.

A variety of innovative street signals and markings were developed by other cities hoping to tame the automobile. Because they were regularly plowed over by cars, silent policemen were often replaced by domed, street-level lights called “traffic turtles” or “traffic mushrooms,” a style popularized in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Detroit reconfigured a tennis court line-marker as a street-striping device for dividing lanes. In 1914, Cleveland installed the first alternating traffic lights, which were manually operated by a police officer stationed at the intersection. Yet these innovations did little to protect pedestrians.

“What evil bastard would drive their speeding car where a kid might be playing?”

By the end of the 1920s, more than 200,000 Americans had been killed by automobiles. Most of these fatalities were pedestrians in cities, and the majority of these were children. “If a kid is hit in a street in 2014, I think our first reaction would be to ask, ‘What parent is so neglectful that they let their child play in the street?,’” says Norton.

“In 1914, it was pretty much the opposite. It was more like, ‘What evil bastard would drive their speeding car where a kid might be playing?’ That tells us how much our outlook on the public street has changed—blaming the driver was really automatic then. It didn’t help if they said something like, ‘The kid darted out into the street!,’ because the answer would’ve been, ‘That’s what kids do. By choosing to operate this dangerous machine, it’s your job to watch out for others.’ It would be like if you drove a motorcycle in a hallway today and hit somebody—you couldn’t say, ‘Oh, well, they just jumped out in front of me,’ because the response would be that you shouldn’t operate a motorcycle in a hallway.”

Left, an ad for the Milwaukee-style traffic mushroom, and right, the device in action on Milwaukee's streets, circa 1926. Via the Milwaukee Public Library.

Left, an ad for the Milwaukee-style traffic mushroom, and right, the device in action on Milwaukee streets, circa 1926. Via the Milwaukee Public Library.

In the face of this traffic fatality epidemic, there was a fierce public outcry including enormous rallies, public memorials, vehement newspaper editorials, and even a few angry mobs that attacked motorists following a collision. “Several cities installed public memorials to the children hit by cars that looked like war monuments, except that they were temporary,” says Norton. “To me, that says a lot, because you collectively memorialize people who are considered a public loss. Soldiers killed in battle are mourned by the whole community, and they were doing that for children killed in traffic, which really captures how much the street was considered a public space. People killed in it were losses to the whole community.”

As early as 1905, newspapers were printing cartoons that criticized motor-vehicle drivers.

As early as 1905, newspapers were printing cartoons that criticized motor-vehicle drivers.

As the negative press increased and cities called for lower speed limits and stricter enforcement, the burgeoning auto industry recognized a mounting public-relations disaster. The breaking point came in 1923, when 42,000 citizens of Cincinnati signed a petition for a referendum requiring any driver in the city limits to have a speed governor, a mechanical device that would inhibit the fuel supply or accelerator, to keep vehicles below 25 miles per hour. (Studies show that around five percent of pedestrians are killed when hit by vehicles traveling under 20 miles per hour, versus 80 percent for cars going 40 miles an hour or more.)

The Cincinnati referendum logically equated high vehicle speeds with increasing danger, a direct affront to the automobile industry. “Think about that for a second,” Norton says. “If you’re in the business of selling cars, and the public recognizes that anything fast is dangerous, then you’ve just lost your number-one selling point, which is that they’re faster than anything else. It’s amazing how completely the auto industry joined forces and mobilized against it.”

One auto-industry response to the Cincinnati referendum of 1923 was to conflate speed governors with negative stereotypes about China. Via the Cincinnati Post.

One auto-industry response to the Cincinnati referendum of 1923 was to conflate speed governors with negative stereotypes about China. Via the Cincinnati Post.

“Motordom,” as the collective of special interests including oil companies, auto makers, auto dealers, and auto clubs dubbed itself, launched a multi-pronged campaign to make city streets more welcoming to drivers, though not necessarily safer. Through a series of social, legal, and physical transformations, these groups reframed arguments about vehicle safety by placing blame on reckless drivers and careless pedestrians, rather than the mere presence of cars.

In 1924, recognizing the crisis on America’s streets, Herbert Hoover launched the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety from his position as Commerce Secretary (he would become President in 1929). Any organizations interested or invested in transportation planning were invited to discuss street safety and help establish standardized traffic regulations that could be implemented across the country. Since the conference’s biggest players all represented the auto industry, the group’s recommendations prioritized private motor vehicles over all other transit modes.

A woman poses with a newly installed stop sign in Los Angeles in 1925, built to the specifications recommended at the first National Conference on Street Safety. Via USC Libraries.

A woman poses with a newly installed stop sign in Los Angeles in 1925, built to the specifications recommended at the first National Conference on Street Safety. Via USC Libraries.

Norton suggests that the most important outcome of this meeting was a model municipal traffic ordinance, which was released in 1927 and provided a framework for cities writing their own street regulations. This model ordinance was the first to officially deprive pedestrians access to public streets. “Pedestrians could cross at crosswalks. They could also cross when traffic permitted, or in other words, when there was no traffic,” explains Norton. “But other than that, the streets were now for cars. That model was presented to the cities of America by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which gave it the stamp of official government recommendation, and it was very successful and widely adopted.” By the 1930s, this legislation represented the new rule of the road, making it more difficult to take legal recourse against drivers.

Meanwhile, the auto industry continued to improve its public image by encouraging licensing to give drivers legitimacy, even though most early licenses required no testing. Norton explains that in addition to the revenue it generated, the driver’s license “would exonerate the average motorist in the public eye, so that driving itself wouldn’t be considered dangerous, and you could direct blame at the reckless minority.” Working with local police and civic groups like the Boy Scouts, auto clubs pushed to socialize new pedestrian behavior, often by shaming or ostracizing people who entered the street on foot. Part of this effort was the adoption of the term “jaywalker,” which originally referred to a clueless person unaccustomed to busy city life (“jay” was slang for a hayseed or country bumpkin).

Left, a cartoon from 1923 mocks jaywalking behavior. Via the National Safety Council. Right, a 1937 WPA poster emphasizes jaywalking dangers.

Left, a cartoon from 1923 mocks jaywalking behavior. Via the National Safety Council. Right, a 1937 WPA poster emphasizes jaywalking dangers.

“Drivers first used the word ‘jaywalker’ to criticize pedestrians,” says Norton, “and eventually, it became an organized campaign by auto dealers and auto clubs to change attitudes about walking in the street wherever you wanted to. They had people dressed up like idiots with sandwich board signs that said ‘jaywalker’ or men wearing women’s dresses pretending to be jaywalkers. They even had a parade where a clown was hit by a Model T over and over again in front of the crowd. Of course, the message was that you’re stupid if you walk in the street.” Eventually, cities began adopting laws against jaywalking of their own accord.

In 1928, the American Automobile Association (AAA) took charge of safety education for children by sending free curricula to every public school in America. “Children would illustrate posters with slogans like, ‘Why I should not play in the street’ or ‘Why the street is for cars’ and so on,” explains Norton. “They took over the school safety patrols at the same time. The original patrols would go out and stop traffic for other kids to cross the street. But when AAA took over, they had kids sign pledges that said, ‘I will not cross the street except at the intersection,’ and so on. So a whole generation of kids grew up being trained that the streets were for cars only.” Other organizations like the Automobile Safety Foundation and the National Safety Council also helped to educate the public on the dangers of cars, but mostly focused on changing pedestrian habits or extreme driver behaviors, like drunk driving.

Street-safety posters produced by AAA in the late 1950s focused on changing behavior of children, rather than drivers.

Street-safety posters produced by AAA in the late 1950s focused on changing behavior of children, rather than drivers.

Once the social acceptance of private cars was ensured, automobile proponents could begin rebuilding the urban environment to accommodate cars better than other transit modes. In the 1920s, America’s extensive network of urban railways was heavily regulated, often with specific fare and route restrictions as well as requirements to serve less-profitable areas. As motor vehicles began invading streetcar routes, these companies pushed for equal oversight of private cars.

“Automobiles could drive on the tracks,” explains Norton, “so this meant that as soon as just five percent of the people in cities were going around by car, they slowed the street railways down significantly, and streetcars couldn’t make their schedules anymore. They could ring a bell and try to make drivers get off their tracks, but if the driver couldn’t move because of other traffic, they were stuck. So the streetcars would just stand in traffic like automobiles.”

GE streetcar ads from 1928, left, and the early 1940s, right, emphasize the efficiency of mass transit over private automobiles.

GE streetcar ads from 1928, left, and the early 1940s, right, emphasize the efficiency of mass transit over private automobiles.

The final blow was delivered in 1935 with the Public Utility Holding Company Act, which forced electric-utility companies to divest their streetcar businesses. Though intended to reduce corruption and regulate these growing electric utilities, this law removed the subsidies supporting many streetcar companies, and as a result, more than 100 transit companies failed over the next decade.

Even as government assistance was removed from these mass-transit systems, the growing network of city streets and highways was receiving ever more federal funding. Many struggling metro railways were purchased by a front company (operated by General Motors, Firestone Rubber, Standard Oil, and Phillips Petroleum), that ripped up their tracks to make way for fleets of buses, furthering America’s dependency on motor vehicles.

Meanwhile, traffic engineers were reworking city streets to better accommodate motor vehicles, even as they recognized cars as the least equitable and least efficient form of transportation, since automobiles were only available to the wealthy and took up 10 times the space of a transit rider. Beginning in Chicago, traffic engineers coordinated street signals to keep motor vehicles moving smoothly, while making crossing times unfriendly to pedestrians.

An aerial view from 1939 of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington, D.C., shows early street markings. Via shorpy.com.

An aerial view from 1939 of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington, D.C., shows early street markings. Via shorpy.com.

“Long after its victory, Motordom fought to keep control of traffic problems. Its highway engineers defined a good thoroughfare as a road with a high capacity for motor vehicles; they did not count the number of persons moved,” Norton writes in Fighting Traffic. Today our cities still reflect this: The Level of Service (LOS) measurement by which most planners use to gauge intersection efficiency is based only on motor-vehicle delays, rather than the impact to all modes of transit.

As in other American industries ranging from health care to education, those with the ability to pay for the best treatment were prioritized over all others. One 1941 traffic-control textbook read: “If people prefer to drive downtown and can afford it, then facilities must be built for them up to their ability to pay. The choice of mode of travel is their own; they cannot be forced to change on the strength of arguments of efficiency or economy.”

All the while, traffic violence continued unabated, with fatalities increasing every year. The exception was during World War II, when fuel shortages and resource conservation led to less driving, hence a drop in the motor-vehicle death rates, which spiked again following the war’s conclusion. By the time the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act was passed in 1956, the U.S. was fully dependent on personal automobiles, favoring the flexibility of cars over the ability of mass transit to carry more people with less energy in a safer manner.

In 1962, Boston formally adopted jaywalking laws to penalize pedestrians, as this photo of city officials shows.

In 1962, Boston formally adopted jaywalking laws to penalize pedestrians.

In 1966, Ralph Nader published his best-selling book, Unsafe At Any Speed, which detailed the auto industry’s efforts to suppress safety improvements in favor of profits. In the preface to his book, Nader pointed out the huge costs inflicted by private vehicle collisions, noting that “…these are not the kind of costs which fall on the builders of motor vehicles (excepting a few successful lawsuits for negligent construction of the vehicle) and thus do not pinch the proper foot. Instead, the costs fall to users of vehicles, who are in no position to dictate safer automobile designs.” Instead of directing money at prevention, like vehicle improvements, changing behaviors, and road design, money is spent on treating the symptoms of road violence. Today, the costs of fatal crashes are estimated at over $99 billion in the U.S., or around $500 for every licensed driver, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Nader suggested that the protection of our “body rights,” or physical safety, needed the same broad support given to civil rights, even in the face of an industry with so much financial power. “A great problem of contemporary life is how to control the power of economic interests which ignore the harmful effects of their applied science and technology. The automobile tragedy is one of the most serious of these man-made assaults on the human body,” Nader wrote.

Dr. David Sleet, who works in the Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention at the CDC, says Nader’s book was a game-changer. “That really started this whole wave of improvements in our highway-safety problem,” says Sleet. “The death rates from vehicle crashes per population just kept steadily increasing from the 1920s until 1966. Two acts of Congress were implemented in 1966, which initiated a national commitment to reducing injuries on the road by creating agencies within the U.S. Department of Transportation to set standards and regulate vehicles and highways. After that, the fatalities started to decline.”

Ralph Nader's book, "Unsafe at Any Speed," brought a larger awareness to America's traffic fatalities, and targeted design issues with the Corvair. A few years prior, in 1962, comedian Ernie Kovacs was killed in a Corvair wagon, seen at right wrapped around a telephone pole.

Ralph Nader’s book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” brought a larger awareness to America’s traffic fatalities, and targeted design issues with the Corvair. A few years prior, in 1962, comedian Ernie Kovacs was killed in a Corvair wagon, seen at right wrapped around a telephone pole.

The same year Nader’s book was published, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act. This legislation led to the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which set new safety standards for cars and highways. A full 50 years after automobiles had overtaken city streets, federal agencies finally began addressing the violence as a large-scale, public-health issue. In 1969, NHTSA director Dr. William Haddon, a public-health physician and epidemiologist, recognized that like infectious diseases, motor-vehicle deaths were the result of interactions between a host (person), an agent (motor vehicle), and their environment (roadways). As directed by Haddon, the NHTSA enforced changes to features like seat belts, brakes, and windshields that helped improve the country’s fatality rate.

Following the release of Nader’s book, grassroots organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD, 1980) formed to combat car-safety issues that national legislators were not addressing. The CDC began adapting its public-health framework to the issue of motor-vehicle injury prevention in 1985, focusing on high-risk populations like alcohol-impaired drivers, motorcyclists, and teenagers.

In the late 1970s, the NHTSA standardized crash tests, like this 90 mph test of two Volvos.

In the late 1970s, the NHTSA standardized crash tests, like this 90 mph test of two Volvos.

“I think the perennial problem for us, as a culture, is recognizing that these injuries are both predictable and preventable,” says Sleet. “The public still has not come around to thinking of motor-vehicle crashes as something other than ‘accidents.’ And as long as you believe they’re accidents or acts of fate, then you won’t do anything to prevent them. The CDC continues to stress that motor-vehicle injuries, like diseases, are preventable.”

Sleet says the CDC’s approach is similar to its efforts against smoking: The first step is understanding the magnitude of the problem or threat, the second is identifying risk factors, and the third is developing interventions that can reduce these factors. “The last stage is getting widespread adoption of these known and effective interventions,” explains Sleet. “The reason we think motor-vehicle injuries represent a winnable battle is that there are lots of effective interventions that are just not used by the general public. We’ve been fighting this battle of increasing injuries since cars were first introduced into society, and we still haven’t solved it.

“Public health is a marathon, not a sprint,” adds Sleet. “It’s taken us 50 years since the first surgeon general’s report on smoking to make significant progress against tobacco. We need to stay the course with vehicle injuries.”

Though their advocacy is limited to drunk driving, MADD is one of the few organizations to use violent imagery to promote road safety, as seen in this ad from 2007.

Though their advocacy is limited to drunk driving, MADD is one of the few organizations to use violent imagery to promote road safety, as seen in this ad from 2007.

Although organizations like the CDC have applied this public-health approach to the issue for decades now, automobiles remain a huge danger. While the annual fatality rate has dropped significantly from its 1930s high at around 30 deaths for every 100,000 persons to 11 per 100,000 in recent years, car crashes are still a top killer of all Americans. For young people, motor-vehicle collisions remain the most common cause of death. In contrast, traffic fatalities in countries like the United Kingdom, where drivers are presumed to be liable in car crashes, are about a third of U.S. rates.

In 2012, automobile collisions killed more than 34,000 Americans, but unlike our response to foreign wars, the AIDS crisis, or terrorist attacks—all of which inflict fewer fatalities than cars—there’s no widespread public protest or giant memorial to the dead. We fret about drugs and gun safety, but don’t teach children to treat cars as the loaded weapons they are.

“These losses have been privatized, but in the ’20s, they were regarded as public losses,” says Norton. After the auto industry successfully altered street norms in the 1920s, most state Departments of Transportation actually made it illegal to leave roadside markers where a loved one was killed. “In recent years, thanks to some hard work by grieving families, the rules have changed in certain states, and informal markers are now allowed,” Norton adds. “Some places are actually putting in DOT-made memorial signs with the names of victims. The era of not admitting what’s going on is not quite over, but the culture is changing.”

Ghost bikes have been installed on roadways across the country where cyclists were killed by motorists, like this bike in Boulder, Colorado, in memory of Matthew Powell in 2008.

In recent years, white Ghost Bikes have been installed on roadways across the country where cyclists were killed by motorists, like this bike in Boulder, Colorado, in memory of Matthew Powell.

“Until recently, there wasn’t any kind of concerted public message around the basic danger of driving,” says Ben Fried, editor of the New York branch of Streetsblog, a national network of journalists chronicling transportation issues. “Today’s street safety advocates look to MADD and other groups that changed social attitudes toward drunk driving in the late ’70s and early ’80s as an example of how to affect these broad views on how we drive. Before you had those organizations advocating for victims’ families, you would hear the same excuses for drunk driving that you hear today for reckless driving.”

Though drunk driving has long been recognized as dangerous, seen in this WPA poster from 1937, reckless driving has been absent from most safety campaigns.

Though drunk driving has long been recognized as dangerous, seen in this WPA poster from 1937, reckless driving has been absent from most safety campaigns.

Though anti-drunk-driving campaigns are familiar to Americans, fatalities involving alcohol only account for around a third of all collisions, while the rest are caused by ordinary human error. Studies also show that reckless drivers who are sober are rarely cited by police, even when they are clearly at fault. In New York City during the last five years, less than one percent of drivers who killed or injured pedestrians and cyclists were ticketed for careless driving. (In most states, “negligent” driving, which includes drunk driving, has different legal consequences than “reckless” driving, though the jargon makes little difference to those hurt by such drivers.)

Increasingly, victims and their loved ones are making the case that careless driving is as reprehensible as drunk driving, advocating a cultural shift that many drivers are reluctant to embrace. As with auto-safety campaigns in the past, this grassroots effort is pushing cities to adopt legislation that protects against reckless drivers, including laws inspired by Sweden’s Vision Zero campaign. First implemented in 1997, Vision Zero is an effort to end all pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries; recently, cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco also announced their goals of eliminating traffic deaths within 10 years. Other initiatives are being introduced at the state level, including “vulnerable user laws,” which pin greater responsibility on road users who wield the most power—whether a car compared to a bicyclist, or a biker to a pedestrian.

Fried says that most people are aware of the dangers behind the wheel, but are accustomed to sharing these risks, rather than taking individual responsibility for careless behavior. “So many of us drive and have had the experience of not following the law to a T—going a little bit over the speed limit or rolling through a stop sign,” he explains. “So there’s this tendency to deflect our own culpability, and that’s been institutionalized by things like no-fault laws and car insurance, where we all share the cost for the fact that driving is a dangerous thing.”

This dark political cartoon from "Puck" magazine in 1907 suggested that speeding motorists were chasing death. Via the Library of Congress.

This dark political cartoon from “Puck” magazine in 1907 suggested that speeding motorists were chasing death. Via the Library of Congress.

As cities attempt to undo years of car-oriented development by rebuilding streets that better incorporate public transit, bicycle facilities, and pedestrian needs, the existing bias towards automobiles is making the fight to transform streets just as intense as when cars first arrived in the urban landscape. “The fact that changes like redesigning streets for bike lanes set off such strong reactions today is a great analogy to what was going on in the ’20s,” says Fried. “There’s a huge status-quo bias that’s inherent in human nature. While I think the changes today are much more beneficial than what was done 80 years ago, the fact that they’re jarring to people comes from the same place. People are very comfortable with things the way they are.”

However, studies increasingly show that most young people prefer to live in dense, walkable neighborhoods, and are more attuned to the environmental consequences of their transportation than previous generations. Yet in the face of clear evidence that private automobiles are damaging to our health and our environment, most older Americans still cling to their cars. Part of this impulse may be a natural resistance to change, but it’s also reinforced when aging drivers have few viable transportation alternatives, particularly in suburban areas or sprawling cities with terrible public transit.

“People don’t have to smoke,” Sleet says, “whereas people might feel they do need a car to get to work. Our job is to try and make every drive a safe drive. I think we can also reduce the dependency we have on motor vehicles, but that’s not going to happen until we provide other alternatives for people to get from here to there.”

Gory depictions of car violence became rare in the United States after the 1920s, though they persisted in Europe, as seen in his German safety poster from 1930 that reads, "Motorist! Be Careful!"

Gory depictions of car violence became rare in the United States after the 1920s, though they persisted in Europe, as seen in his German safety poster from 1930 that reads, “Motorist! Be Careful!” Via the Library of Congress.

Fried says that unlike campaigns for smoking and HIV reduction, American cities aren’t directly pushing people to change their behavior. “You don’t see cities saying outright that driving is bad, or asking people to take transit or ride a bike, in part because they’re getting flack from drivers. No one wants to be seen as ‘anti-car,’ so their message has mostly been about designing streets for greater safety. I think, by and large, this has been a good choice.”

“The biggest reductions in traffic injuries that the New York City DOT has been able to achieve are all due to reallocating space from motor vehicles to pedestrians and bikes,” says Fried. “The protected bike-lane redesigns in New York City are narrowing the right of way for vehicles by at least 8 feet, and sometimes more. If you’re a pedestrian, that’s 8 more feet that you don’t have to worry about when you’re crossing the street. And if you’re driving, the design gives you cues to take it a bit slower because the lanes are narrower. You’re more aware of how close you are to other moving objects, so the incidence of speeding isn’t as high as it used to be. All these changes contribute to a safer street environment.”

Like in the 1920s, these infrastructure changes really start with a new understanding of acceptable street behavior. “That battle for street access of the 1910s and ’20s, while there was a definite winner, it never really ended,” says Norton. “It’s a bit like the street became an occupied country, and you have a resistance movement. There have always been pedestrians who are like, ‘To hell with you, I’m crossing anyway.’

“The people who really get it today, in 2014, know that the battle isn’t to change rules or put in signs or paint things on the pavement,” Norton continues. “The real battle is for people’s minds, and this mental model of what a street is for. There’s a wonderful slogan used by some bicyclists that says, ‘We are traffic.’ It reveals the fact that at some point, we decided that somebody on a bike or on foot is not traffic, but an obstruction to traffic. And if you look around, you’ll see a hundred other ways in which that message gets across. That’s the main obstacle for people who imagine alternatives—and it’s very much something in the mind.”

This 1935 Chevy safety film made the misleading argument that their vehicles were "the safest place to be," and that all danger was created by careless drivers.

This 1935 Chevy safety film made the argument that motor vehicles were “the safest place to be,” and that danger was only created by careless drivers.

(This article is dedicated to my uncle, Jim Vic Oatman, and friend, Chris Webber, both of whom were killed by car collisions. Learn more about the CDC’s battle against motor-vehicle injuries here, find out how to bring Vision Zero to your city, or scare yourself with the Boston Public Library’s archive of historic car wreck images.)

56 comments so far

  1. Ron Waite Says:

    Cars were always a big part of my life. When I was young I knew every car from the 50s by name – even what the style was. For example – A 1958 Chevy Impala. Like guns, cars don’t kill people – people do. If you can’t handle your car you should not be driving.

  2. Toby Says:

    It appears to just be asking for too much to expect ordinary people, who are often tired, distracted, or both to drive their cars without running them into each other, along with cyclists, pedestrians, trees, and small animals. So it would in fact increase safety overall if more people were on transit, walking, or biking, because they wouldn’t all be driving.

  3. Steve Schmidt Says:

    Driverless cars.

  4. Bicycle Bill Says:

    Only 30,000 Americans? You guys have a lot of catching up to do if you want to be world class.

    Motor vehicles kill around 1.3 million people a year globally every year.

    That’s the real scandal.

    Motor vehicles driven by humans should be prevented from exceeding 30kph.

  5. nubwaxer Says:

    you are now more likely to get away with murder by killing someone and claiming self defense.

  6. Lawrence Selkirk Says:

    The tone of this article seems to imply that people have the right to walk anywhere they want and the powers that be stymied that by outlawing walking down the middle of the street. Can’t the same argument be made for walking down a runway? Seriously, there is room for all modes of transportation – in the proper place and with the proper rules.

    I find it hilarious when bicyclists complain about unruly vehicle drivers yet many bicyclists take stop signs as a mere suggestion, not a requirement, and often fly right through them. Which could be a major reason why not many drivers are cited for the deaths of cyclists or pedestrians. From what I’ve seen in my neck of the woods, those deaths may well have been caused by illegal actions of the pedestrian or cyclist.

  7. Winky Says:

    Lawrence, I don’t find it hilarious at all.

    Bicyclists (quite justifiably) complain about cars frequently placing them in mortal danger (through risk taking, speeding, drunk driving, running red lights, impatience, ignorance, texting, eating, gabbing on the phone, general distraction, poor judgement etc,) not about “unruly” behaviour.

    On the other hand motorists really just complain that cyclists annoy them. Somehow, the annoyance cyclists cause justifies their occasional murder.

  8. Red Mercer Says:

    People are casting about left and right, trying to find the factor that’s making Americans obese at an alarming clip, and nobody’s pointing a finger at the car. It’s a stressful yet completely sedentary form of transport, both of which are proven contributors to obesity

  9. pete.d Says:

    Thank you!

    Granted, this movement to take back the roads from motor vehicles may be too little, too late. Automated cars are in our future and, while there are at least two major hurdles left (legal structure, particularly wrt liability, and systems security) will eventually render much of this discussion moot.

    But if we can make any progress in the meantime, we absolutely should and I am deeply thankful for the effort you obviously put into writing this article. It’s such a breath of fresh air to see that there are in fact other people thinking seriously about where motor vehicles stand in our society, and where they really ought to.

    Will pedestrians ever have unfettered access to the street again? Probably not, and it’s not clear they should. But to carve up the space of the street, granted less of it to motor vehicles and more of it to other transportation modes? That’s a great idea and far overdue.

    And to the all-too-typical motor vehicle apologist Mr. Selkirk: read that very first sentence of the article. There are all too many examples of pedestrians and cyclists, or even other motor vehicle occupants, who are killed by the careless actions of a motor vehicle driver, and who get off scot-free.

    Yes, there are irresponsible cyclists. Take a bad driver and put them on a bike, and they remain a bad driver, with all their bad habits. But a) the fact is that a cyclist present a much reduced hazard to others, and b) even when the motorist is clearly at fault, no real penalties are imposed.

    As a classic example, and hardly unique, read up on the case of John Przychodzen, a cyclist who was killed by a motorist, struck _twice_ by the motorist while Przychodzen was cycling well to the right on a very broad shoulder of the road. The driver received a $34 ticket for failing to stay in his lane.

    And yes, the _perception_ that these rogue cyclists are out there do color the attitudes of police investigators and prosecuting attorneys. But the reality is that most of the time, the motorist was entirely at fault and yet they are handed penalties far from what is justified when one person takes the life of another, assuming they are given any penalty at all.

    The idea that in every other case a person whose actions lead directly to the death of another human being gets a punishment in line with such a grievous harm, but that if they happen to do it while driving a motor vehicle, they are practically absolved of all blame, this is abhorrent to morality and justice.

  10. pete.d Says:

    @Red Mercer:

    “nobody’s pointing a finger at the car”

    Actually, lots of people are. The bigger issue is that there almost certainly is no single reason for the epidemic of obesity in the US. But studies have shown a strong correlation between the amount of time a person spends in a car and the likelihood they will be obese.

    Other factors include (but not limited to) desk jobs, poor nutrition (i.e. the inexpensive foods are the least nutritious), and even an imbalance of “good” vs “bad” bacteria in one’s gut.

    But certainly the motor vehicle absolutely has been part of the discussion and finger-pointing with respect to obesity in the US.

  11. Michael Burianyk Says:

    I’ll give up my car when they pry my cold, dead body out of the wreckage!

  12. antonkk Says:

    Don’t compare guns to cars. If you must use the analogy, then it would be more appropriate to compare guns to garages/driveways.

    Guns are hidden away for a highly specialized occasion requiring self-defense. Cars, on the other hand, are worse than guns because the streets are a battlefield where bullets never stop whizzing by. And the worst part is that most of the time these enormous bullets fly not because of self defense… but just because.

  13. Stickmaker Says:

    Other have mentioned this, but I as a Transportation Engineer who has had accident investigation courses and worked with accident reports I want to emphasize this: It’s not the cars, it’s the drivers.

    Until people stop obsessing with “dangerous cars” and focus on the real problem, nothing they say or do will help the situation.

  14. Jim Lynch Says:

    These comments seem to be aimed at urban dwellers where all modes of transport are available. I live fifty miles from Anchorage Ak, it is the hub of all jobs in Alaska. There are no other means of getting to work other than automobiles unless you are capable of pedaling your bike in zero degree weather on snow and ice, and in time to arrive at work on time. So in agitating for some one solution fits all scheme, remember that if you overreach, it will backfire on you. BTW, mothers against drunk driver got a five year manditory sentence for felony drunk driving passed. Now you will do more time for that than you will for killing someone.

  15. Soused Says:

    I was once hit by a cyclist, my fault, and I apologized for not looking. Neither of us even fell. There is a difference between being hit by 2000 lbs and 200 lbs, get cars out of our cities.

  16. Kurt Says:

    To paraphrase Gavin de Becker from THE GIFT OF FEAR: Motorists are afraid that bicyclists will inconvenience them. Bicyclists are afraid that motorists will kill them.

  17. Martin Cassini Says:

    Stickmaker, the real problem is neither car nor driver. It’s the rule of priority, which makes roads dangerous in the first place. In the absence of a shift from priority to equality (with sociable design to match, so that all road-users take it more or less in turns instead of insisting on artificial, anti-social rights-of-way), the traffic control system will be the problem.

  18. Wendy, a walker in Bethesda Says:

    What a superb article–thank you for the history. Much of the problem where we live is structural–the streets, including in school zones, are like raceways; right turn on red, and, where I live, LEFT turns on red (onto a one-way street) are allowed; and accident after accident seems to result only in finger-pointing, even though in any encounter with a car, the pedestrian or cyclist loses. And loses big.
    We’re trying to change mindsets here, but “the roads are for cars” mentality rules.
    The answer, instead of playing the blame game (“Pedestrians are distracted walkers”; “SUV drivers might as well put on blindfolds”) is to make the streets structurally safer through raised crosswalks or pedestrian waiting areas that push out into the street; calming traffic by installing flower beds and allowing parking along the side of the roads; banning right turns on red; and even decorating the crosswalks, like these:
    http://www.panoramio.com/photo/73785401
    or
    http://streetprintcalifornia.com/DuraTherm-Stamped-Asphalt-Design.php
    We’ve got a long road ahead of us. Thank you again for this article.

  19. Sylvia Guillemette Says:

    It’s good to learn more about how the history of people and cars came into some kind of working order. We still need to be more aware of other drivers, pedestrians, motorcycles, animals, children and other people.

  20. Bob Shanteau Says:

    I’m curious as the source of this statment: “Detroit reconfigured a tennis court line-marker as a street-striping device for dividing lanes.” What year was that?

    I know that the first centerline was painted on “Dead Man’s Curve” in 1911, but I’m trying to find out more about when lane lines between multiple lanes of traffic in the same direction were invented.

  21. Hunter Says:

    Hi Bob,

    That information comes from Norton’s book “Fighting Traffic” (page 59). He sourced the Detroit innovation to an article by John P. Fox called “Traffic Regulation in Detroit and Toronto,” published in “American City” in September of 1915. Good luck with your research!

    Hunter

  22. Hory Clap Says:

    Michael Burianyk …..

    As long as you only take yourself out of the game, no one will care.

  23. HM Says:

    Ralph Nader – a*** of the century.
    Because Americans wouldn’t wear seatbelts he came up with the modern crumple up tin can.
    I’ve had major accidents in both old style cars and modern cars.
    Guess which didn’t fall apart, guess which I wasn’t even a tiny bit hurt in.
    That’s right, the old car. I had a seat belt on of course.

  24. David Hembrow Says:

    Interesting article. You’ve made a good job of documenting the first wave of change on the streets in the 20th century. All countries followed the lead of the USA for this wave. Most of them still have the problems caused by it. But there is one exception. The Netherlands began a second revolution in the late 20th century. Streets which had been transformed for cars and which looked quite American by the 1970s were transformed once again.

    This second revolution has not begun in most other places, but I can show you what it looks like with photos and video:

    http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/search/label/the%20second%20revolution

  25. kb Says:

    I dont find this long rather it seems to end suddenly. I find it implies that dui efforts are suspect by the chronology to tokenise special driving for stigma instead of just driving. Driving almost any car anywhere is in fact a most shameful act. The internet promises still to someday inform our children of the facts of life with priority to killer cars over birds and bees. Good people dont let there children ride in cars. A MAJOR flaw is swallowing propaganda about density being relevant. Its not. Transit works better for acre lot towns then highrises. Transit means much more capital per person served at once. A quarter million invested per person used many times instead of cheap crap cars saves fortunes and lives.

  26. Jon Spangler Says:

    @14 – Jim Lynch, why do you live 50 miles from where you work or shop in the first place? That, as you say, is far to distant to be able to walk or bicycle to work, or to take a reasonable transit trip. Living far from work and other destinations (shopping, medical care, etc.) would seem to be highly inefficient, a contributor to global warming (which is melting the permafrost in your neighborhood), and otherwise wasteful of time and natural resources.

  27. Mr. Bee Says:

    Very interesting stuff. I was fascinated to find out after reading this (I looked it up) that about two dozen people are run over by cars in my city every year, and about half of those or one dozen are actually in a legal right of way (mostly crosswalks) at the time. So the car driver is in the wrong, is breaking the law in fact, is 100% to blame for the death of the pedestrian and yet these deaths are not only not punished, they aren’t even recorded for the most part. The driver often escapes without even getting points on their licence or any kind of criminal record. Amazing.

  28. matt Says:

    @26 – good point. time was, one lived where they worked. that could be in a city or on a farm. now people what to live rual but work urban. this has created many problems in traffic, obesity, and city planning.

    im happy to see that “fill-in” development is coming back a bit, people moving back into cities. me, i love biking or walking from my home to my work. maybe it helps i live in a 300-year-old city (New Orleans) that was built for this lifestyle. too bad we forgot it for a while…

  29. bettybarcode Says:

    Time to borrow a rhetorical device from the NRA: cars don’t kill people. Drivers kill people.

    Every time you blame the vehicle, you exonerate the driver, as though he/she was a helpless backseat passenger. Words matter. Stop blaming cars and start blaming drivers.

  30. rs mcnall Says:

    “Cigarette smoking causes about one of every five deaths in the United States each year.1,6 Cigarette smoking is estimated to cause the following:1

    More than 480,000 deaths annually (including deaths from secondhand smoke)”

    1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress. A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2014 [accessed 2014 Feb 6].

  31. Bob Shanteau Says:

    bettybarcode wrote “Time to borrow a rhetorical device from the NRA: cars don’t kill people. Drivers kill people.”

    Yes, but the question this article raises is whether our current system of private motor vehicles driven by amateur drivers is inherently unsafe. Yes, the system can can be made safer, but is it SAFE ENOUGH?

    In particular, how do we, as a society, answer the question of whether the benefits that society reaps from personal motor vehicles worth the carnage?

  32. Brian Says:

    Great article, thanks for sharing this history.

    As driverless cars have been mentioned, I’d just like to state that to think that putting a robot in charge of a vehicle rather than a person is going to improve safety is farfetched, not to mention that driverless cars are motorists’ justification for continuing unsustainable urban planning practices.

    Lets not be selfish and just admit cars are bad in urban environments, full stop.

  33. Chainring Says:

    You can’t solve a problem caused by cars by replacing them with driverless cars. I agree with those above who have said we need to start blaming the drivers. We do need to start putting the responsibility back on the right side of the steering wheel.

    When I was learning to drive my father strongly emphasized that I was responsible for where the car went and what (ultimately) it hit if I made a mistake. I fully believe the driver of the large speeding vehicle should bear the burden of responsibility in collisions with more vulnerable users.

    Back to the driverless cars: how much more threatening will our roads become to humans when “robots” control everything? It’s all in the programming of course, but will the programmers strictly adhere to Asimov’s Three Laws when it comes to driverless cars or will our current cultural dysfunction take precedence in that programming?

  34. bill Says:

    As a cyclist AND a motorist it is amusing to read some of these comments. I never take my bike on roads anymore. Because I have to first drive my bike to somewhere safe to ride, I don’t use bike lanes either. I do understand the dilemma faced by young city dwellers. I used to ride on the side of road (ones without bike lanes) until one day I heard the screech of braking tires behind me. They managed to miss me and like the saying goes…”miss me once , shame on you…”

  35. MDL Says:

    I expect car accidents to go up with all the texting drivers around. I get around by bicycle quite a lot and I frequently see people in cars texting. I had a guy in front of me the other day who was swerving a lot. I biked up next to him and looked in his car window. He was madly texting with the phone held down by his seat. He didn’t see me at all. He was an accident waiting to happen.

  36. Eric Says:

    @14 – Jim Lynch – This woman indeed does commute 10 miles in Alaska by “pedaling [her] bike in zero degree weather on snow and ice, and in time to arrive at work on time”:

    http://www.commutebybike.com/2013/01/11/winter-commuting-in-alaska-learning-to-ride-in-the-wind-real-wind/

  37. kevin Says:

    We’re maybe 10 years out from the first commercialized autonomous vehicles. I suspect trucking will be one of the first targets, but this will eventually spread to passenger vehicles, and dramatically increase safety and efficiency. What’s interesting to think about is that the software folks working on this will perhaps have a greater societal impact than most people directly in public health professions.

  38. Cigarro Says:

    If a car and a bicycle collide, the car wins. Bicycles and cars don’t mix well. Separate them.

  39. Helen Scottsburg Says:

    My response to the first commentator…

    Lots of car owners shouldn’t be on the streets. Lots of gun owners shouldn’t, either. The difference, and what this article is trying to articulate, is that society has been rendered largely through corporate interests to make not owning a vehicle hardly feasible in some communities.

    Mine, for example, has one neighborhood with bike lanes in a city of roughly 15-20 neighborhoods. We have one bike trail but it is difficult to access from main roads, which do not leave room for bikes. Our public bus system can mean a person has an up to one-hour commute with walking. We also do not have sidewalks to walk on.

    Nope. No sidewalks. Other than some that stretch a few blocks on major roads, we do not have sidewalks. Hell, we voted to get rid of all of our schoolbuses, but the state stepped in and forced us to keep them.

    A lot of this is largely due to lack of funding. A lot of it is also cultural. My city used to be a major industrial community–you may have heard of our transmissions, found in a number of classic GM products–and, though the jobs have left, the spirit of American auto manufacturing still remains.

    I love cars, but my life used to revolve around cycling for transportation. This city is not conducive to that lifestyle, even if it should be. The general mentality is that people who can’t drive safely, refuse to drive, or can’t afford to drive just shouldn’t get to go places–and the lack of reasonable infrastructure & support make it a reality.

  40. Niels Krijger Says:

    Wikipedia lists the number of road related deaths per country: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_traffic-related_death_rate

    In the country where I live it is 3.9 fatalities per 100.000 inhabitants (The Netherlands). The USA has 10.4, roughly equal to countries such as Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania.

    Considering The Netherlands is a highly densily populated country and has more cyclists without helmets than almost anywhere else, this begs the question how this is possible.

    Some things spring to mind:
    - Lots of roundabouts
    - Separate cycling lanes
    - Strong judicial protection of vulnerable road users (as a motorist you pay at minimum 50% of damages when hitting a cyclist, even if the cyclist is at fault)
    - Lots of speed cameras (in Utrecht where I live there are 4 motorways, only one of them doesn’t have an average speed camera).
    - Popular anti-alcohol campaign, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_campaign
    - Lots of digital billboards above motorways with road safety messages

  41. Ronny Karam Says:

    Now with electric cars, it’s gonna be even easier to kill someone.

  42. Icepilot Says:

    The author needs to break out a dictionary – all definitions of “murder” include intent, or at the very least gross negligence. I would wager that more than ninety percent of vehicle homicides involve neither.

  43. 204 Says:

    Accidents are a result of poor decisions, not an unavoidable event. If your poor decision directly leads to a loss of life, it sounds like negligence to me, even gross negligence.

  44. MH Says:

    @14 – Jim Lynch

    If you want to know how bicycle commuting in winter could possibly work, why don’t you come down south a bit and check out Minneapolis. It’s both about as cold (or colder!) than Anchorage and has an extensive community of bicycle commuters – all through the winter. It’s no harder than commuting by car over snow and ice, and an awful lot safer to boot. When your bike slides out of control on ice, you just look a bit dumb. When your car does it you end up in the emergency room.

  45. James Says:

    @44 MH

    You got that the other way around; if your car slides out of control and into a ditch, you look dumb. When you slide out of control on a bike, you can hit your head an end up in the emergency room. Car are far safer than any other personal means of transportation. Do you seriously expect everyone in Anchorage to commute by bicycle? …really? I have nothing against riding bikes in the winter, but to rain on cars is…just beyond me.

    @ Ronny Karam
    “Now with electric cars, it’s gonna be even easier to kill someone.”

    Says the guy in the country full of firearms? Ha. You guys make me smile. I’m not trying to turn this into a brawl. I’m an avid cyclist, it’s a big part of my life, and in the summer, I make every effort possible to commute by bike. It’s better for my health, my wallet, the environment and traffic congestion. But guys, seriously, cars are definitely a big plus in our society. It allows us to get up in the morning and travel to places hundreds- even thousands of miles away in a matter of hours. We could never have come this far without cars. And as pollutant as they are, we’ve come a long way, and have a long way to progress. When we start perfecting the electric car and battery technology, we’ll be producing a small fraction of the pollution produced by today’s cars.

    If you think everyone can be reduced to cyclists, you’re delusional. Cars are here to stay, and for the better. Don’t think you’re getting enough exercise because of your car? Don’t blame you inanimate object for your lifestyle choices. Come on people, wake up and smell the pavement.

  46. carl Says:

    In 1993, I was in a near-fatal car crash while driving to work. I was initially given a 30% chance of living. I was in a coma for 3 weeks & rehab for 6 months. I lost my job. I got divorced. I was in a wheelchair, then a walker. Now a cane is my steady companion. Cars are weapons of mass destruction.

  47. Comment 47 Says:

    Thank you for the informative history article. I would suggest to Carl #46 that I sympathisize with your position, the car is not to blame but the driver – and yes many drivers should not be driving…period. And #41 – I fail to see the connection between electric power of cars and their danger. Please enlighten the confused…

  48. Rick Says:

    The ‘guns don’t kill people…’ analogy is a very narrow-minded and dangerous way of looking at the situation. To the NRA’s credit, it’s simple but effective propaganda.

    An unarmed psycho is not half as dangerous as a psycho with a gun or car. A distracted pedestrian is not half as dangerous as a distracted driver. An unarmed pre-schooler is as laughably harmless as s/he is unpredictably dangerous with a loaded gun pointed at you.

    It’s all about potential – guns and cars raise the killing potential of any individual. It’s not easy to kill someone accidentally when you’re unarmed and walking around drunk, it’s FAR easier to accidentally do so with a gun or in a vehicle.

    How many pointless deaths occur every day as a result of a split-second mistake of the driver? My dad – who has never had a serious car accident in his 40+ years driving – drove full speed through a red light quite recently, because he was tired. Thankfully no other car was going across. Absolutely no one is immune to moments of absent-mindedness.

  49. Eileen Says:

    Great article. My only “complaint” is that the NYTimes article pictured is really difficult to read — and is well worth a read on its own, especially W. Bruce Cobb’s eloquent statement about the rights of pedestrians. (I was able to find and read the article through my public library’s electronic files, along with some other articles on Cobb. Cobb is a really interesting figure — definitely worth a google — NY City traffic magistrate who was very creative in dealing with bad drivers (using not just high fines for the time ($100 in 1920, which is close to $1200 today), but also prison and/or sending them to the “workhouse”). He was on one of the Hoover committees and part of developing traffic laws. When he leaves traffic court, he goes to the Legal Aid Society where he works on consumer credit/predatory lending issues, and then to children’s court. And while he’s there, in 1946, his wife, Candace Newton Cobb, is killed when she walks down a NYC sidewalk and is hit by a truck, which had been hit by a car. Both of the drivers are initially charged with crimes, but the judge on the case dismisses the charges, even though he thinks the drivers are “culpably negligent,” because the law as written isn’t clear enough to support the charges. Someone with more musical talent than me needs to write an opera.

  50. Murray Lumley Says:

    Someone above made the comment that ‘automated driverless cars are coming’ and that would make sharing the road with pedestrians even worse. I don’t think so. The driverless cars will be programmed to avoid and even stop for visible obstructions while a human driver often doesn’t, resulting in a dead pedestrian. Pedestrians will be able to just walk into the road and completely snarl the traffic. I look forward to that.

  51. Scott MacNaughton Says:

    What a brilliant and informative article. Bravo!

    I live in a Canadian city of 1.2 million that averages 1.5 pedestrians hit by vehicles per DAY. Frightening, especially for a dedicated walker such as myself (voluntarily gave up the car over five years ago, haven’t regretted it once). Recently, a woman was hit and killed in the downtown core, early in the afternoon on a clear day, not two blocks from her office, in a marked crosswalk on a green light. She did everything she was supposed to, but was still struck fatally by a turning vehicle. The driver was finally charged last week: “failure to yield to a pedestrian”, a $545 fine, plus 4 demerit points (only 1/4 the amount required for a 1-month licence suspension), and exactly the same charge that would have been issued had the driver missed the pedestrian entirely. The message to me as a pedestrian: you’re on your own, the justice system is not looking out for you, and pedestrian casualties are an acceptable and unavoidable side-effect of urban life. Something desperately needs to change.

  52. Smarty Marky Says:

    An impressive article; I certainly agree as with any machine, the operator determines the ultimate safe usage, both for the operator and those with whom the machine comes in contact other than the operator. Big money brings big lobby which affects the world of law in an unbalanced scenario. My belief is someone who operates anything from a power saw to a rifle to an automobile to a nuclear power plant and including a bicycle must behave in line and in responsibility with the possible/probable damage the machine can inflict upon both the operator and others. Including direct and indirect damage. Excellent article raising consideration of an issue which affects most people in one way or another.

  53. Norunn Nygard Says:

    A couple of years ago, I was surprised to find out what many have already mentioned, that car drivers who hit pedestrians in crosswalks rarely if ever get so much as a fine or a demerit point against their license.
    But after paying attention to what happens when car drivers are irresponsible, I was hardly surprised when I got a demerit point after being an eyewitness to a very distracted car driver who made an illegal left turn and hit a motorcyclist. Yes, I was on a motorcycle too at the time. No, I was not in any manner involved in the collision (I refuse to call it “accident”; when drivers bumble around at random in cars with most the windows blacked out, without even looking out the front window, and not considering the possibility of others on the road, collisions are expected).
    But according to the CHP, I was more at fault than the car driver, who got off scot free though he failed to get a payout on his claim against my insurance.
    With law enforcement so corrupt, there is no incentive to driving safely. Actually, there is an incentive to just the opposite; when law enforcement automatically blame motorcyclists for any accident they are involved in or in the immediate vicinity of, car drivers who have dented their cars against poles, fences, or other cars have an incentive to hitting motorcycles, as they can then make a claim against the motorcyclist’s insurance!
    Motordom must be pleased.

  54. Pat Chambers, Carthage Mo Says:

    Heartland homicide is generally committed by inexperienced youth or impaired or impatient or drugged drivers pulling into traffic without yielding, lots of two-wheelers killed like this. Then, there’s the big trucks driven by economically enslaved maniacs for maniacs who worship profit. I would favor a thirty-five mile an hour limit nationwide, with long distance covered by train car carriers. Residential areas let’s say 15 max. We’re all living longer, what’s the durn hurry? Wouldn’t be bad for air quality either.

  55. RDG Says:

    Autos are safer BECAUSE of people like Nader and therefore, and despite the numbers, fewer folks are crippled, maimed or killed than would be otherwise.

    This car lover is also a road cyclist. There are plenty out there who give all riders at all levels a dubious reputation. That said, it is unbelievable how many drivers can’t safely pass a cyclist with endangering anyone involved. Many of these same people gripe about how cyclists flan the law while they text behind the wheel, run lights and can’t seem to find their turn signal lever.

    Separate cyclists from the road? Not bloody likely. There will be more and more people rideing the streets as the years go by and I’m not talking about the Spandex set. Get used to it and make the necessary adjustments. Those whatevers will still be on sale if you have to slow down for a few seconds.

  56. Anthony Carter Says:

    Definitely a great article. I myself do not advocate for bike lanes, because they actually make traffic MORE confusing, not less. Cyclists should ride in the lane with cars; it reduces danger because motorists SEE you, and therefore won’t hit you.


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