Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Before fatal crashes were a fact of life, the city took a visible stance against them.
But once upon a time, in the days before fatal crashes were a common fact of life, at least one American city officially marked each avoidable, automobile-related death. In 1938, with support from the Washington Post’s ”program to aid the fight against wanton killing,” Washington, D.C., city commissioners erected a skull-and-crossbones flag in front of city hall on every day that a fatality was reported. A white flag denoted “deathless days in traffic,” according to the Post.
It doesn’t seem like the flags flew for long, judging from newspaper archives. And it took another 70 years for city governments to make a serious, visible effort at ending traffic deaths, with initiatives like Vision Zero. “But there are eighty years of cultural expectations around street design and driving speed which make it difficult to really design streets for safety,” writes David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington.