According to Greater Greater Washington, not much had changed in the last 90 years regarding traffic statistics. A traffic report from 1928 show the same problems still exist in today’s statistics, including:
- Traffic deaths were decreasing over time, but the number of deaths was still high
- Distracted driving was a big cause of traffic accident deaths
- The public agreed better street design would decrease the number of accidents
- The numbers for car and pedestrian accidents, as well as car and bicycle accidents, were disturbingly high
However, one difference sticks out when you examine traffic deaths 90 years ago and traffic deaths now: how we view them.
1920s Media Campaigns Turned Anger Away From Drivers
Back in the day, streets were made to be walked across freely. However, you would never see any striped crosswalks, sidewalks or anything else that indicated pedestrians could only walk in certain areas. Instead, streets were considered public space, often with pushcart vendors, street cars and children roaming freely in the middle of the streets because they didn’t have to look both ways before crossing.
This changed when owning a car became more common in the 1920s. The problem really arose when the number of cars distributed directly correlated with the increase in the number of traffic deaths. After all, cars were seen as frivolous, unnecessary luxuries. They were even called “pleasure cars.” Many media campaigns were published in papers that demonized cars by depicting them as death machines. The traffic deaths these death machines caused were devastating and absolutely tragic to communities. In the D.C. area, traffic deaths were even commemorated by raising death flags for every person who died in a car accident.
The public became outraged by the increase in traffic deaths and called for a device to be installed in cars that would not allow them to travel faster than 25 miles per hour. Naturally, auto makers fought back by redefining streets in a way that pedestrians would become more restricted than cars.
This is when the creation of the crosswalk was invented and enforced. The auto industry created massive media campaigns that blamed pedestrians for these accidents, one of which was so successful, it’s still around to this day. The term “jaywalking” was created to demean pedestrians. “Jay” was an expression similar to “hick” or a person from the sticks. The implication was that a jaywalker was someone who didn’t have the sense to walk correctly in a city.
Society Has Been Desensitized to Traffic Deaths
The automobile industry shifted blame from drivers to pedestrians when it comes to traffic deaths. As a result, pedestrian access has been restricted by giving drivers free reign of the roads. And because car crashes became so frequent, we as a society have become blasé when we hear about new deaths that occur due to car crashes.
Only with recent efforts, such as Vision Zero, have governments become serious about increasing efforts to decrease the amount of people who die in car crashes. We’re not saying we should go back to raising flags for each person that dies due to a car crash, but we should definitely concentrate more effort on the issue.