The forgotten history of how the auto industry won the right of way for cars.
It happened again the other night.
This time, the driver of a Jaguar traveling down 42nd Street in Manhattan struck another car and lost control, flipping onto the sidewalk and striking several pedestrians. Amazingly, given that this is one of the most crowded parts of town, no one was killed. Less amazingly, given the New York Police Department’s general approach toward car-pedestrian or car-bicycle crashes, the driver will apparently not face any criminal charges.
Despite remarkable recent gains in pedestrian safety – thanks in part to design changes aimed at slowing down drivers – cars still jump the curb nearly every day. Drivers who kill or maim pedestrians with their vehicles are still only rarely treated as criminals in New York, as long as they are not drunk and do not flee the scene. Even that is sometimes not enough to merit serious charges.
Twenty years ago, an out-of-control driver plowed through New York’s Washington Square Park, killing 5 people and injuring 27 others. That horrific incident caused a public outcry and galvanized advocates in what has become known as the livable streets movement. But the driver, a 74-year-old woman, was not charged with any crime.
It wasn’t always like this. Browse through New York Times accounts of pedestrians dying after being struck by automobiles prior to 1930, and you’ll see that in nearly every case, the driver is charged with something like “technical manslaughter.” And it wasn’t just New York. Across the country, drivers were held criminally responsible when they killed or injured people with their vehicles.
So what happened? And when?
According to Peter Norton, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, the change is no accident (so to speak). He has done extensive research into how our view of streets was systematically and deliberately shifted by the automobile industry, as was the law itself.
“If you ask people today what a street is for, they will say cars,” says Norton. “That’s practically the opposite of what they would have said 100 years ago.”
Streets back then were vibrant places with a multitude of users and uses. When the automobile first showed up, Norton says, it was seen as an intruder and a menace. Editorial cartoons regularly depicted the Grim Reaper behind the wheel. That image persisted well into the 1920s.
Today, livable streets advocates such as New York’s Transportation Alternatives spend a lot of time and energy trying to get people to take pedestrian fatalities seriously. But at the beginning of the 20th century, traffic deaths – particularly the deaths of children – drew enormous attention.
“If a child is struck and killed by a car in 2012, it is treated as a private loss, to be grieved privately by the family,” Norton says. “Before, this stuff was treated as a public loss – much like the death of soldiers.” Mayors dedicated monuments to the victims of traffic crimes, accompanied by marching bands and children dressed in white, carrying flowers.
“We’re talking less about laws than we are about norms,” says Norton. He cites a 1923 editorial from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – a solidly mainstream institution, as he points out. The paper opined that even in the case of a child darting out into traffic, a driver who disclaimed responsibility was committing “the perjury of a murderer.”
Norton explains that in the automobile’s earliest years, the principles of common law applied to crashes. In the case of a collision, the larger, heavier vehicle was deemed to be at fault. The responsibility for crashes always lay with the driver.
Public opinion was on the side of the pedestrian, as well. “There was a lot of anger in the early years,” says Norton. “A lot of resentment against cars for endangering streets.” Auto clubs and manufacturers realized they had a big image problem, Norton says, and they moved aggressively to change the way Americans thought about cars, streets, and traffic. "They said, 'If we’re going to have a future for cars in the city, we have to change that. They’re being portrayed as Satan’s murdering machines.'"
AAA and other auto clubs turned first to the younger generation, financing safety education programs in the public schools that were designed to teach children that streets are for cars, not for kids. They funded safety patrols that taught kids they had to stop for traffic, not the other way around.
One key turning point, according to Norton, came in 1923 in Cincinnati. Citizens’ anger over pedestrian deaths gave rise to a referendum drive. It gathered some 7,000 signatures in support of a rule that would have required all vehicles in the city to be fitted with speed governors limiting them to 25 miles per hour.
Local auto clubs and dealers recognized that cars would be a lot harder to sell if there was a cap on their speed. So they went into overdrive in their campaign against the initiative. They sent letters to every individual with a car in the city, saying that the rule would condemn the U.S. to the fate of China, which they painted as the world’s most backward nation. They even hired pretty women to invite men to head to the polls and vote against the rule. And the measure failed.
They also got Detroit involved. The automakers banded together to help fight the Cincinnati rule, according to Norton. “And they remained organized after that,” he says.
The industry lobbied to change the law, promoting the adoption of traffic statutes to supplant common law. The statutes were designed to restrict pedestrian use of the street and give primacy to cars. The idea of "jaywalking” – a concept that had not really existed prior to 1920 – was enshrined in law.
The current configuration of the American street, and the rules that govern it, are not the result of some inevitable organic process. "It’s more like a brawl," says Norton. "Where the strongest brawler wins."
Top image: This 1910 illustration, first published by Keppler & Schwarzmann in 1909, shows an automobile driven by a chauffeur speeding down a road, surrounded by newspaper clippings with headlines about numerous traffic accidents involving pedestrians struck by automobiles, including one where a chauffeur was charged with first-degree murder in the death of a 13-year-old boy. (Courtesy Library of Congress)