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.
Contrast this procedure with the barbarities of present-day motoring and you will realize what the automobile has done to highway manners. Once a driver has gained facility, his manner of operating an automobile is an expression of his personality, like his style of making love, dictating to a stenographer, or asking his boss for a raise, and, unfortunately, too many motorists are barbarians.
The Nation’s most important contribution to the century-old debate about automobile safety came with our publication in April 1959 of “The Safe Car You Can’t Buy,” by a recent Harvard Law graduate named Ralph Nader. The Detroit auto industry, Nader wrote, was moving at a “glacier-like” pace to implement concrete, practical measures that would vastly improve passenger safety and save thousands of lives. The essay—with another Nation contribution, “Fashion or Safety: Detroit Makes Your Choice” (October 12, 1963)— led to his classic book Unsafe at Any Speed (1961), which not only revolutionized car-safety standards but launched the consumer protection movement that has similarly impacted countless industries in the United States and around the world.
It is clear that Detroit today is designing automobiles for style, cost, performance and calculated obsolescence, but not—despite the 5,000,000 reported accidents, nearly 40,000 fatalities, 110,000 permanent disabilities and 1,500,000 injuries yearly—for safety.
Almost no feature of the interior design of our current cars provides safeguards against injury in the event of collision. Doors that fly open on impact, inadequately secured seats, the sharp-edged rearview mirror, pointed knobs on instrument panel and doors, flying glass, the overhead structure—all illustrate the lethal potential of poor design. A sudden deceleration turns a collapsed steering wheel or a sharp-edged dashboard into a bone and chest-crushing agent. Penetration of the shatterproof windshield can chisel one’s head into fractions. A flying seat cushion can cause a fatal injury. The apparently harmless glove-compartment door has been known to unlatch under impact and guillotine a child. Roof-supporting structure has deteriorated to a point where it provides scarcely more protection to the occupants, in common roll-over accidents, than an open convertible. This is especially true of the so-called “hardtops.” Nor is the automobile designed as an efficient force moderator. For example, the bumper does not contribute significantly to reduction of the crash of deceleration forces that are transmitted to the motorist; its function has been more to reflect style than absorb shock….
By all relevant criteria, a problem so national in scope and technical in nature can best be handled by the legislative process, on the federal level, with delegation to an appropriate administrative body. It requires uniformity in treatment and central administration, for as an interstate matter, the job cannot be left to the states with the dissimilar laws setting low requirements that are not strictly enforced and that do not strike at the heart of the malady—the blueprint on the Detroit drawing board. The thirty-three year record of the attempt to introduce state uniformity in establishing the most basic equipment standards for automobiles has been disappointing.
Perhaps the best summation of the whole issue lies in a physician’s comment on the car manufacturer’s design policy: “Translated into medicine,” he writes, “it would be comparable to withholding known methods of life-saving value.”
As The Nation has argued for at least 100 years, the only way to prevent thousands of needless deaths caused by automobiles is to shift the paradigm that privileges the comfort, convenience and style of the few above the safety and security of the many. It would be a historic achievement should Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative succeed, at long last, in doing so.
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