Before fatal crashes were a fact of life, the city took a visible stance against them.

Today, marking traffic deaths is largely a private matter. Family members might erect a small roadside cross or shrine, or local artists might create something like Portland’s haunting ghost bikes.

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.

H/T: Streetsblog

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: Mayor Luigi Brugnaro walks on St Mark's Square as exceptionally high tidal flooding engulfed the city.
    Environment

    Venice Faces ‘Apocalyptic’ Flooding

    Seasonal acqua alta reached the highest level since 1966, leaving two dead and devastating damage. The city’s ambitious flood barrier isn’t ready yet.

  2. photo: A metro train at Paris' Gare Du Nord.
    Transportation

    Can the Paris Metro Make Room for More Riders?

    The good news: Transit ridership is booming in the French capital. But severe crowding now has authorities searching for short-term solutions.

  3. photo: A woman crosses an overpass above the 101 freeway in Los Angeles, California.
    Transportation

    Navigation Apps Changed the Politics of Traffic

    In an excerpt from the new book The Future of Transportation, CityLab’s Laura Bliss adds up the “price of anarchy” when it comes to traffic navigation apps.

  4. a bike rider and bus riders in Seattle.
    Perspective

    There’s No App for Getting People Out of Their Cars

    “Mobility as a Service” boosters say that technology can nudge drivers to adopt transit and micromobility. But big mode shifts will take more than a cool app.  

  5. A view of a Harlem corner.
    Equity

    How Ronald Reagan Halted the Early Anti-Gentrification Movement

    An excerpt from Newcomers, a new book by Matthew L. Schuerman, documents the early history of the anti-gentrification and back-to-the-city movements.

×