Can We Stop Cars from Killing People?Historians in the News
tags: public health, automobiles, public safety, Traffic Fatalities
On the afternoon of October 8, 2013, in the last moments of his life, twelve-year-old Sammy Cohen Eckstein, of Park Slope, Brooklyn, was walking to after-school soccer practice near his apartment on Prospect Park West when he lost control of his ball. It rolled into the busy southbound street, and he went after it. The driver of a car in one lane hit the brakes. The driver of a van in the next lane did not. Later, he said he’d seen only a ball, not a boy.
In the nineteen-tens, when cars were becoming commonplace in the United States, their right to dominate the road was fiercely contested. Newspapers ran articles denouncing drivers for hitting pedestrians, and police sometimes had to rescue such drivers from mobs baying for blood. During the following decade, the number of fatalities per year doubled, reaching thirty thousand in 1929. There were no driving tests, lane markings, traffic lights, or stop signs on streets, which had long been public spaces where children played. Drunk adults drove. Children drove, too. Cars killed thirteen hundred people in New York alone in 1929—still a record for the city. The majority of victims in New York City, then as now, were pedestrians. Grassroots protest movements coalesced, their leaders arguing that the speed and power of cars foretold a public-health crisis—a point driven home by posters of mothers holding lifeless children. But the automotive industry had a better-funded counter-campaign to make high body counts acceptable to the public.
As the historian Peter Norton writes in his book “Fighting Traffic,” starting in the nineteen-twenties, the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, the leading lobbying group for car manufacturers, persuaded editors to publish its pseudo-statistical “news reports” on car crashes, which spread the idea that “jaywalkers”—a pejorative for people from rural areas who didn’t know how to navigate city streets—were responsible for their own injuries and deaths. Auto clubs sponsored street shows in which jaywalkers were lampooned by clowns and convicted in mock trials held by children. This industry campaign helped to bring about what Norton calls a “social reconstruction of the street,” in which pedestrians were taught to accommodate cars, not the other way around. A new school of urban designers, called highway engineers, refashioned cities to push pedestrians and cyclists further to the margins. Meanwhile, media coverage of car crashes grew less critical of drivers, and a sense of fatalism began to envelop the consequences of traffic collisions, which are typically called “accidents,” suggesting that no one is to blame and nothing can be changed. (Plane crashes are not described in the same way.) By century’s end, cars had grown progressively larger, better insulated from the feedback of the surrounding environment, and safer for the people inside them. Those on the outside were less lucky. The U.S. automotive lobby resisted regulations enacted in Europe that made cars and trucks less lethal, and, by 2018, the number of pedestrian and cyclist deaths per kilometre in the United States was more than four times higher than in the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Among the most vulnerable are older adults, who in 2020 made up twenty per cent of killed pedestrians, and people who live in low-income neighborhoods where there has been little investment in safe road design.
Between 2010 and 2019, as the number of U.S. drivers or passengers who died in collisions held fairly steady, deaths of those on bikes rose thirty-six per cent, and deaths of those on foot nearly doubled.
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