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. Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village
    Perspective

    How Low Turnover Fuels New York City’s Affordable Housing Crisis

    American Community Survey data shows that New Yorkers stay in apartments, including rent-regulated ones, for longer than most, leaving little room for newcomers.

  2. A data visualization shows 200 years of immigration to the U.S. represented as a thickening tree trunk.
    Life

    A New Way of Seeing 200 Years of American Immigration

    To depict how waves of immigrants shaped the United States, a team of designers looked to nature as a model.

  3. A photo of a "yellow vest" protester in Paris, where high gas taxes have contributed to a wave of unrest.
    Environment

    What France’s ‘Yellow Vest’ Protests Can Teach California

    A lesson from Paris: Policies that reduce climate emissions at the expense of the economically disadvantaged are unsustainable.

  4. A photo of a post office in the snow.
    Life

    A Prayer for the Post Office

    While USPS workers deliver Christmas gifts, Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers’ Union, is busy fending off demands to privatize the mail.

  5. A photo of Andrew Field, the owner of Rockaway Taco, looking out from his store in the Rockaway Beach neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York.
    Life

    Tacos and Transit: Rate Your City

    From taco-rich San Diego to the tortilla wastelands of Boston, we asked you to grade U.S. cities on two critical metrics: Mexican food and public transportation.