Two weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio officially launched his Swedish-influenced “Vision Zero” initiative to completely eliminate all automobile-caused cyclist and pedestrian deaths in New York City. It is a laudable and much-needed program: an estimated 286 people died in traffic accidents in New York in 2013.
How striking, then, that one hundred years ago this week, The Nation was concerned with exactly the same problem. An editorial note in the February 5, 1914, issue began:
The figures of automobile killings in New York city in the first month of 1914 are such as to indicate that the year is to witness a further growth of the dreadfully increasing slaughter. The number is reported as twenty-eight for January. The total of these killings for 1913 was 302, which is more than double the total for 1911—a startling showing.
While there are exponentially more cars on the city’s roads in 2014 than there were in 1914, it is nonetheless surprising that despite significant advances in safety technology and regulations in the past century, the number of deaths caused by automobiles every year in New York City has barely changed at all. It is almost no safer to be a pedestrian on the city’s streets today than it was at the dawn of the automobile age 100 years ago, when oversight was minimal at best. Clearly, a new approach is needed, and it will have to account for the fundamental problems The Nation’s editors diagnosed in 1914:
By far the greater part of this automobile slaughter is caused by people driving for pleasure or desiring to save a few minutes of time in getting from one point to another…. Those who ride in automobiles are a small minority, fortunate in the possession of a luxury and a convenience to which nine-tenths of the people have no access. They have the benefit of the use of the public streets in a degree far beyond what is commensurate either to their numbers or to any specific contribution they make towards the cost of the streets. To this nobody objects; but it is intolerable that they should be permitted to put the rest of the people in danger.
Protection of cyclists and pedestrians from automobiles is not only a city planning issue; it is a social justice issue.
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Sixteen years later, Carl Dreheer—a sound engineer in Hollywood and, beginning with this article, a frequent Nation contributor for almost forty years—wrote in “Homicide on Wheels” (August 27, 1930) that our callousness about automobile deaths reflected a disturbing change in social mores.
The automobile has ruined the temper and manners of the people who use the highways. In the good old somnolent days people got around in carriages and buggies at an average speed of eight or ten miles an hour. When a fast team came up behind a slower one on a rural highway and the vehicle ahead gave way, the passing driver customarily tipped his hat in acknowledgement of the other man’s courtesy in letting him by. When as a boy in up-state New York I was taught to drive, it was impressed on me that ordinary politeness required this gesture. Moreover, when a driver wanted to pass he did not make a noise about it; he simply followed close behind the other team until the man ahead became aware that passage was desired, whereupon he would generally turn out as soon as possible.