The Murderous Motor

by TNR Staff | July 7, 1926

Complete figures dealing with automobile accidents in 1925 have recently been made public. They reveal that safety on the highway, or the present lack of it, may now fairly be reckoned as one of the major problems of the day. Last year more than 22,000 persons were killed in or by automobiles, and something like three quarters of a million injured. The number of dead is almost half as large as the list of fatalities during the nineteen months of America’s participation in the Great War. In 60 percent of the cases, the person killed was a pedestrian struck by a car. Six thousand of these dead were children. Moreover, the automobile toll is increasing. The 1925 total is 10 percent larger than that for 1924.

Appalling as are these figures, they do not indicate that drivers are getting more careless, or even that increasing congestion in the streets is bringing matters to a state where going for an automobile ride is equivalent to an intention of murder and suicide. It is probable that the number of accidents per automobile-mile traveled is decreasing. Thus while deaths increased 10 percent in 1925, car registrations increased nearly 13 percent, and the sales of gasoline and other supplies do not suggest that the time during which each car is in use is diminishing. The truth is, that in some parts of the country at least, drivers are being trained to greater carefulness than formerly. This fact, plus other safeguards, produced a 4 percent decrease in fatalities during the first third of the present year, compared to the same period in 1925, in cities of more than 100,000 population, despite the fact that registrations in those cities continued to grow at a rapid rate. In 1925, no less than three states and fifteen cities succeeded in reducing the fatality record below that of 1924. The states were Oregon, Minnesota and New York, the cities Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Buffalo, San Francisco, Washington, D. C, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Denver, St. Paul, Birmingham, Syracuse, New Haven, New Bedford, Cambridge and Kansas City, Kans. The states and cities which have thus shown a decrease in automobile killings in the face of a general increase are in almost every instance those which have been devoting special care and attention to educating drivers and pedestrians, and to reducing physical hazards by eliminating blind corners and grade crossings, widening narrow roads and the like.

A study of the types of accident which are most numerous is illuminating. Out of nearly 3,000 cases reported to the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, instances where automobiles struck pedestrians are at the top of the list. Next come collisions between two or more automobiles, and then collisions between automobiles and street cars. The deadly railroad crossing is fourth, and collisions between automobiles and stationary objects fifth. Far behind come cases wherein cars have run down bicyclists, and, finally, those in which for one reason or another an automobile has turned turtle.

The list of causes assigned to these accidents is also worth noting. Fast driving comes first, and violating the rules of the road second. Inattention is listed as third, and fourth and fifth are inexperience and confusion—conditions which of course frequently occur together. Intoxication, which so often appears in newspaper headlines as a reason for accident, is at the foot of the list, being responsible for only about one-third as many disasters as speeding.

Among physical conditions, fog, snow and rain are the chief causes of trouble. Skidding, which is closely allied to at least two of these, is next, and then follow: defects in vehicle, blinding lights on approaching car, inadequate street lights, road defects, and confusion resulting from the dimming of headlights. In cases where the pedestrian is held responsible, jaywalking by adults leads all other causes. Then comes improper use of streets by children, confusion on the part of pedestrian, intoxication, physical disability of the pedestrian (the driver of the car having erroneously assumed that his victim can leap out of the way), and stealing rides by boys.

Naturally, the enormous waste of life has not gone unnoted, nor have we lacked efforts to reduce it. Experts are studying; automobile traffic control has been elevated to the position of an important branch of engineering. School children are bombarded with safety campaigns. Highways are plastered with warning signs. In some parts of the country private citizens are banded into vigilante associations to report lawbreakers. These ameliorative measures have met with some success, as we have already suggested. Yet they are altogether inadequate to cope with the situation. The fact is, the automobile is changing the whole face of our civilization so profoundly, and so rapidly, that society as yet does not realize the scope of the development, and is tardy in enacting measures, and changing old habits, to meet the needs of a new day. No phenomenon in history presents any parallel for this sudden rush to the roads. There are already in America four cars for every five families, while the number of drivers can hardly be less than half the total number of adults (in California it is almost equal to that number). Not only is this true, but no previous type of vehicle has been used to any comparable extent. On a basis of distance covered, man’s mobility must have been increased at least twenty-five times. The effect on the size and character of our cities, on the home, on morals, education, health—each of these is a field in which vast, almost unnoted developments are taking place.

It is probably true that much of the present waste of life is inevitable and will continue no matter what preventive measures are taken. It is part of the price we have to pay for the new era which, whether it is worth what it costs or not, is certainly here to stay. Yet the most casual investigation will reveal that in several respects, the present situation is capable of much improvement. Roads originally designed for a limited amount of horse-drawn traffic are almost everywhere too narrow. Blind corners and grade crossings are the rule rather than the exception. Blinding headlights are still tolerated in many communities. Driving licenses are granted without adequate information as to the applicant’s mental powers. People are permitted to go on driving even after they have revealed their incompetence. The use of loud, harsh horns is tolerated, although the average pedestrian, hearing such a signal close at hand, is more likely to be frightened into immobility than action. The careful and intelligent driver is largely at the mercy of the reckless and stupid one who, by the use of dangerous speeds, by refusing to take precautions against skidding in wet weather and by “wriggling through” heavy traffic, endangers not only his own life but that of many others. (No doubt the law of the survival of the fittest is at work, both among drivers and pedestrians, as the slowest-witted and the most stupid are killed off. We await expectantly a brochure on this theme by some eminent biologist under the title. The Automobile: the Friend of Eugenics.)

Finally, there is a phase of this subject which the ardent advocates of states’ rights might well ponder. A serious evil today, responsible for many hundreds of accidents yearly, is the confusion of traffic laws and signals which now exists between state and state. In some places, cutting corners on a left-hand turn is permitted; in others it is strictly taboo. When the driver holds out his arm, with the forearm bent up, or down, or held horizontal, any of these gestures may mean, according to local regulations, that he is stopping, turning left or turning right. The signal for a left-hand turn in one state signifies a halt in others. While speeding is universally forbidden, there are now some states where you can be arrested for driving less than twenty-five miles an hour on the open highway. In some communities, pedestrians are required to obey traffic lights and forbidden to jaywalk, while other places have not yet reached the point of putting into effect this wholly desirable rule. If motorists did all their driving within the borders of their own cities, or even their own states, this confusion would not be so important; but they of course do nothing of the sort. In the East, where distances are not great, it is possible to pass through parts of four or five states in the course of a single day’s driving. To ask millions of drivers to memorize four or five sets of road rules, and then remember perhaps in the fraction of a second, which set applies in any given emergency, is obviously impracticable.

Not even the most ardent opponent of the tendency toward federalization can fail to concede that what is urgently needed is a nationwide simple code. This need not, and should not, be a matter for action by the national government. A cooperative effort of the states should be adequate. It is true that the degree of success which attended the efforts of Secretary Hoover’s recent National Conference on Street and Highway Safety is not a very happy augury. That conference found itself in great difficulties when it approached the question of uniform signals. It therefore contented itself with the opinion that when a driver puts his arm out, it should be understood that he intends to do something, other than roll straight along at a uniform speed. This seems a reasonably sate surmise, even for a man of caution. It is obvious that it will be enormously difficult to bring the various states into harmony on signals, as it will be to establish throughout the country even minimum requirements of safety as to width of highways, blind crossings, etc. However, the mounting death ton is an adequate reminder to everyone, including the automobile industry itself, that the time is near at hand when serious and even drastic remedies must be applied.

This article originally ran in the July 7, 1926 issue of the magazine.

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