Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metro history: Cars ran down more than 300,000 pedestrians in 1931

November 30, 2011 - 12:37 PM
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(Photo: Popular Science)

A story earlier this week highlighted multiple dimensions of justice and automated traffic enforcement and issues of pedestrian safety. A woman received a $150 ticket from the police department that accused her of running a red light. She pointed to video of the incident and insisted that she had, in fact, stopped.

And it's true. The woman did stop. But a red light camera captured the incident and showed that she stopped in the crosswalk — a bad behavior that intrudes on pedestrian space and could, potentially, threaten pedestrian safety.

Many people reacted with fervor in favor of pedestrian rights. Should the woman get a $150 ticket for stopping in the crosswalk? Absolutely, many of you said. She's in the wrong and that's the pedestrian's space. I agree that protecting the crosswalk is important. I don't, however, believe $150 is an appropriate fine — it's punitively high and while it makes sense for running a red light, I don't believe it's at all fair or equivalent to the violation of stopping in the crosswalk. Perhaps a fine of $10 to $50 would be more in line with the crime while still providing an incentive for drivers to act more cautiously.

Red light cameras are a very 21st-century way of increasing traffic safety, and as the discussion about pedestrian safety expanded, I found myself turning back to a May 1932 issue of Popular Science to refresh myself on when our culture first turned to these pedestrian dangers. You know how many pedestrians were struck by cars in 1931? Automobiles ran down more than 310,000 people and more than 14,000 died. Cars killed more than 34,000 people total in that year, according to the author.

The article makes the case that these collisions happen not due to mechanical error so much as poor driver behavior and poor pedestrian behavior. "One out of every four fatalities of this kind resulted from crossing thoroughfares in the middle of the block," the magazine noted. How to change that? Campaigns like Street Smart are still attempting to curb reckless behavior even now. Former District Department of Transportation head Gabe Klein is employing pedestrian mannequins to encourage safer driving in Chicago.

In 1931, the magazine frames this struggle as between drivers and pedestrians but our transportation system has expanded. Now we have more buses, more bicycles, Zipcars and MetroAccess vans and more, all out there on the road. This article from 80 years is a good reminder that not all our perceptions about traffic safety are accurate. Most people then imagined accidents in icy weather or on wet roads. Yet most occurred in clear weather, most often between 5 and 6 p.m. in daylight. 20% happened on Sunday. Even eight decades later, we're still learning the lessons of traffic safety. Is it higher fines? Is it more automation? Society is still figuring that out.

Read the 1931 issue of Popular Science here and read more pieces of Metro history here.

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