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FOCUS ON DRIVER BEHAVIOR
 

At the dawn of the twentieth century, mass-market automobiles brought the exhilarating promise of expanded personal mobility. But automobiles created new hazards; the power, weight, and speed of a car made it more likely to cause injuries and fatalities than a carriage or a bicycle. An alarming increase in deaths resulting from traffic accidents raised concerns in many sectors of society.

Almost all observers of safety problems believed that driver competence and behavior determined whether the automobile would be a boon or a menace. Unlike a horse, which was capable of safely guiding a carriage or overturning it if frightened, an automobile depended entirely on the driver for direction and control. Logic dictated that an inanimate machine could not cause accidents; it merely responded to the driver's commands. Public safety seemed to depend on improving driver skill, increasing caution, and reducing rampant errors and recklessness.

At first, speeding incidents and pedestrian fatalities highlighted class disparity and rude, arrogant behavior; those who could afford automobiles endangered those who did not drive. Automobiles were more numerous than streetcars by 1905, and pedestrian fatalities drew the attention of safety advocates. Some called for pedestrian education.

Satirical postcard, 1908
Satirical postcard, 1908
'Beware Little Children' sheet music, 1925
"Beware Little Children" sheet music, 1925

Children playing in the streets were especially vulnerable to growing automobile traffic.

As automobile ownership became common in the 1910s and 1920s, a broader culture of safety advocacy emerged. Motorists were endangering each other and themselves in addition to pedestrians.

The National Safety Council focused on the human factor in automobile accidents. Safety leagues in major cities conducted public awareness campaigns to make drivers and pedestrians pay more attention in traffic. The federal government encouraged state and local governments to improve and standardize traffic engineering, laws, and law enforcement. The auto industry searched for specific causes of fatalities by compiling accident reports while insisting that automobiles themselves did not contribute to accidents if driven properly.

Safety experts concluded that driver behavior and the driving environment were responsible for accidents. They argued that external control systems were needed. Roads should be engineered for safety; drivers should obey rules, signs, and signals; intoxication from alcohol should not be permitted; and law enforcement was needed. Careful planning would bring order out of chaos and create an environment suited to automobiles instead of horses and carriages.

TRANSPORTATION FATALITIES, 1915-1925

Year ............ Railroad Passengers .............. Motorists and Pedestrians

1915 ....................... 199 ............................................ 6,600

1916 ....................... 246 ............................................ 8,200

1917 ....................... 301 .......................................... 10,200

1918 ....................... 471 .......................................... 10,700

1919 ....................... 273 .......................................... 11,200

1920 ....................... 229 .......................................... 12,500

1921 ....................... 205 .......................................... 13,900

1922 ....................... 200 .......................................... 15,300

1923 ....................... 138 .......................................... 18,400

1924 ....................... 149 .......................................... 19,400

1925 ....................... 171 .......................................... 21,900

Source: Historical Statistics of the United States

Shoulder bag issued by a store in Luray, Virginia to promote pedestrian safety among children.
Shoulder bag issued by a store in Luray, Virginia to promote pedestrian safety among children.
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