Atlantic Cities

The Evolution of Traffic Accidents in New York

The Evolution of Traffic Accidents in New York
Reuters

Late last month Transportation Nation reported that 214 traffic fatalities occurred in New York City to date in 2011. That figure was well below the previous year's mark by the same time. All told there were 269 fatalities in 2010 [PDF] - the second-lowest all-time figure, just above the record-setting 2009 mark of 258. If 2011 keeps pace then New York will register its lowest fatalities total since officials began keeping statistics, back in 1910.

Clearly, New York City has come a long way in mitigating traffic fatalities. According to an article from the New York Times dated September 2, 1913,  the city endured 471 traffic fatalities in 1910. Of those, 112 were caused by automobiles, with another 148 from streetcars and 211 from horse-drawn vehicles. Of those it was estimated that some 95 percent were pedestrians struck in the streets. That's with a population of about 4.7 million — a bit more than half what it is today.

As the headline suggests, the city was beginning to recognize the safety hazards posed by automobile travel on its streets. Of course that begs the question: how bad were things back in 1910? A brief survey of archived Times and Tribune articles from that year highlights a few major auto-related problems plaguing New York City streets - unregulated chauffeurs, poor roads, and a culture of children playing in the street that had yet to adapt to the times, chief among them. The most disturbing trend was a propensity for hit-and-runs.

Much of the public's attention was focused on chauffeurs. A January 2 article in the New York Tribune notes the "rising tide of indignation" against hired drivers. The (unnamed) author goes so far as to suggest that the relatively new act of driving actually breeds a desire to smash things - and that "some automobile drivers take pleasure in their deadly work." Chauffeurs who stick around after an accident are considered a "rarity." The writer blames the situation on the fact that drivers don't have to demonstrate any skills to get a license, but need only send in $2 to the proper authorities.

Some chauffeurs drove taxis, while others were hired by wealthy car owners. (The car was not yet an average household item, of course.) As a result, it was common to see high-profile names among the traffic reports. In July, for instance, the chauffeur of a car owned by the publisher Frank Doubleday struck and killed a 23-year-old in Long Island. But the rich and powerful were not always on the wrong end of these incidents: when bad roads were to blame for a death in front of his house in Mount Pleasant, William Rockefeller had a car drive voters to a special election that led to the approval of a $175,000 road improvement, according to the July 16 Times.

There were many distractions in the streets besides the physical road itself. Accidents often occurred when automobiles frightened horses drawing wagons; occasionally horse and machine would even collide. Streetcars added to the general confusion. In March, according to the Times, a trolley car disobeyed an order to stop on Eighth Avenue and Twenty-third Street, and as a result nearly crashed into a motorcade carrying President Taft. The driver of Taft's car swerved and scraped the trolley, making "a narrow escape from possible serious injury."

Perhaps the greatest safety hazard was the number of children playing in the street. A September issue of the Times reported 17 people killed by cars in the month of August, six of which were children. "Some of the accidents and deaths of children are due to the carelessness of parents in permitting their children to take fearful chances in the street," said the secretary of the National Highway Protective Association. Not all the carelessness was on the part of the parents. Many car owners at the time were simply poor drivers. On one tragic day in May, a Brooklyn lawyer was arrested for hitting a 16-year-old. The boy was fine, and the lawyer offered to drive him home, but during that ride he struck and killed a 6-year-old girl playing with other children in the streets. The lawyer was arrested again and this time charged with homicide.

Most drivers fled the scene of the crime. An unsettling incident occurred in March, when the son of a policeman was hit by a car in the Bronx. The passengers looked out the window to see what had happened, and when they realized what they'd done, they waived their chauffeur on. A nearby policeman tried to follow the car on horseback but lost it after two miles, when it swung onto the bridge toward Manhattan. Part of the reason for all the hit-and-runs might have been a fear of retribution among motorists. One driver who did stick around after killing a teenage boy at First Avenue and Forty-eighth Street was immediately stoned by a crowd of witnesses, according to the August 19 Tribune.

The city has come a long way since its stoning age. The Bloomberg administration attributes much of the recent decline in traffic deaths to safer street configurations and improved pedestrian signals. (Most recently officials installed haikus at certain curbsides to promote pedestrian safety.) It's also made a public outreach effort to urge drivers to abide the city's 30 mph. limit — according to the Department of Transportation, the difference between being hit by a car going 30 and one going 40 is often the difference between life and death — and this summer officials announced a program to decrease speed limits to 20 miles per hour in some parts of the city. Never forget 1910.

Photo credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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