When Cities Put Up Monuments to Traffic DeathsRoundup
tags: cars, urban history, automobiles, accidents, public history
Peter Norton is associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia. He is the author most recently of Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving. This article is based largely on material from his first book, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.
One hundred years ago, on Monday, June 12, 1922, the city of Baltimore formally honored local children who had been killed by motorists. Ahead of the ceremony, in the downtown Courthouse Plaza, organizers of the city’s “No Accident Week” erected a 25-foot-tall wood-and-plaster obelisk, designed by an architect and painted to resemble a monument of white marble. Inscribed on its face were these words: “Erected by the Citizens of Baltimore in Memory of the 130 Children Whose Lives Were Sacrificed by Accident during the year 1921.”
At noon, Mayor William F. Broening unveiled the temporary monument, which was decorated around its base with four plaster reliefs, each depicting lethal traffic disasters involving vehicles and children. After a dedication from the mayor, clergyman offered a formal benediction. Also participating, according to the Baltimore Sun, were delegations of schoolchildren, girl and boy scouts, the Women’s Civic League, and a church choir.
Baltimore’s wooden obelisk was a new and extraordinary response to an alarming trend. As cars and trucks proliferated, deaths and injuries in cities rose steeply. In 1921, about 13,000 people were killed by motor vehicles in the United States — double the 1915 toll. There were then about 12 traffic deaths per 100,000 Americans. The risk was highest in cities, and most of those killed were pedestrians. Almost half were children.
Today’s traffic fatality trends are equally grim. In the US in 2021, nearly 43,000 people were killed in vehicle crashes — a 16-year high that set the 2021 death rate at 12.9 per 100,000. The fastest-growing share of total traffic deaths is people who were walking or riding a bike: Between 2010 and 2019, fatalities rose 36% for bicyclists and nearly doubled for those on foot. Many reasons have been cited, including bigger vehicles, faster driving during the pandemic, and digital distractions. But even apart from these recent trends, walking and biking in the U.S. is far more dangerous than it is in other comparable nations — so much so that parents often chauffeur their children even when the destination is a walkable distance.
These facts are well known. What remains almost unknown is a century-old turning point that marked the beginning of the journey that led us to this status quo.
For more than 90 years, there has been a tacit agreement in the US to treat the right to walk as dispensable, and to treat each death in traffic as an individual loss to be grieved privately, behind closed doors. These responses to the dangers of walking and biking have kept deaths among pedestrians and cyclists out of public view. They have promoted a tendency to attribute such deaths to individual failures for which individuals alone — reckless drivers or careless pedestrians — are responsible.
But a century ago, judges defended pedestrians’ rights in city streets. The convenience of drivers was no grounds for infringing these rights. Any motorist driving too fast to avoid injuring or killing a pedestrian was regarded as speeding. Deaths to pedestrians, and especially to children, were regarded as intolerable public losses to be publicly grieved by the whole community.
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