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When Cities Made Monuments to Traffic Deaths

A century ago, cars killed pedestrians and cyclists in record numbers. As traffic deaths rise again, it’s time to remember how US cities once responded to this safety crisis.

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Photo illustration of historical monuments to traffic victims in Baltimore and St. Louis

In th early 1920s, cities like Baltimore (right) and St. Louis (left) erected elaborate temporary memorials to victims of motor vehicle crashes — mostly pedestrians, and often children. Photo illustration by Stephanie Davidson

Over one hundred years ago, on Monday, June 12, 1922, the city of Baltimore formally honored local children who had been killed by motorists. Ahead of the ceremony, in the downtown Courthouse Plaza, organizers of the city’s “No Accident Week” erected a 25-foot-tall wood-and-plaster obelisk, designed by an architect and painted to resemble a monument of white marble. Inscribed on its face were these words: “Erected by the Citizens of Baltimore in Memory of the 130 Children Whose Lives Were Sacrificed by Accident during the year 1921.”

At noon, Mayor William F. Broening unveiled the temporary monument, which was decorated around its base with four plaster reliefs, each depicting lethal traffic disasters involving vehicles and children. After a dedication from the mayor, clergyman offered a formal benediction. Also participating, according to the Baltimore Sun, were delegations of schoolchildren, girl and boy scouts, the Women’s Civic League, and a church choir.

Baltimore’s wooden obelisk was a new and extraordinary response to an alarming trend. As cars and trucks proliferated, deaths and injuries in cities rose steeply. In 1921, about 13,000 people were killed by motor vehicles in the United States — double the 1915 toll. There were then about 12 traffic deaths per 100,000 Americans. The risk was highest in cities, and most of those killed were pedestrians. Almost half were children.

Today’s traffic fatality trends are equally grim. In the US in 2021, nearly 43,000 people were killed in vehicle crashes — a 16-year high that set the 2021 death rate at 12.9 per 100,000. The fastest-growing share of total traffic deaths is people who were walking or riding a bike: Between 2010 and 2019, fatalities rose 36% for bicyclists and nearly doubled for those on foot. Many reasons have been cited, including bigger vehicles, faster driving during the pandemic, and digital distractions. But even apart from these recent trends, walking and biking in the U.S. is far more dangerous than it is in other comparable nations — so much so that parents often chauffeur their children even when the destination is a walkable distance.

These facts are well known. What remains almost unknown is a century-old turning point that marked the beginning of the journey that led us to this status quo. 

When Traffic Victims Were Public Losses

For more than 90 years, there has been a tacit agreement in the US to treat the right to walk as dispensable, and to treat each death in traffic as an individual loss to be grieved privately, behind closed doors. These responses to the dangers of walking and biking have kept deaths among pedestrians and cyclists out of public view. They have promoted a tendency to attribute such deaths to individual failures for which individuals alone — reckless drivers or careless pedestrians — are responsible.

But a century ago, judges defended pedestrians’ rights in city streets. The convenience of drivers was no grounds for infringing these rights. Any motorist driving too fast to avoid injuring or killing a pedestrian was regarded as speeding. Deaths to pedestrians, and especially to children, were regarded as intolerable public losses to be publicly grieved by the whole community.

These ceremonies made public issues out of private losses, and committed whole cities to making walking safer, even at a high cost to drivers’ convenience. They also signified that pedestrian safety was not to be secured at the cost of pedestrian rights; a city had to accommodate walking at least as much as it accommodated driving. From this perspective, a pedestrian’s death was never just the fault of a careless walker or a reckless driver. It reflected the failure of a city to defend the right to walk. 

The Monument Movement

Baltimore’s monument was neither entirely local nor spontaneous. The National Safety Council, a nonprofit membership association, served as a consultant for Baltimore’s No Accident Week and advised similar campaigns in other cities. Industries and insurance companies had established NSC in 1913 to find ways to prevent injuries to workers, which grew costly to their employers as states introduced worker compensation laws. By the 1920s, NSC was extending its efforts into public safety campaigns to curb the growing number of injuries and deaths caused by motorists.

The participation of NSC and its local affiliates in the public safety campaigns of the 1920s indicates a practical, dollars-and-cents motive. Some automotive interest groups, especially local automobile clubs, joined in because traffic casualties threatened to lead to stricter regulation of driving. Auto clubs in cities like Cincinnati also marked the sites of fatal crashes, as a warning to motorists to drive carefully. But the public campaigns were not driven entirely by NSC or its members’ business interests: Local volunteers mobilized to turn them into moral demands to protect the rights of pedestrians. 

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Credit: National Safety News, 1921

NSC developed a basic template of events for safety campaigns, including the use of temporary monuments for the duration of the campaign. Other cities followed Baltimore’s example, with their own variations. In October 1922, New York City’s Safety Week included a memorial inscribed “1,054 children killed in accidents in New York City in 1921 / Why must this continue?” A “Memorial Division” of 1,054 children, each representing one of the children who had been killed, marched past about 200 “White Star Mothers” — each the mother of a child who had been killed in 1921.

Two weeks later, at Pittsburgh’s No Accident Week, the mayor dedicated a “Child Accident Victim’s Monument” in Schenley Park, where about 5,000 people attended the ceremony. A group of 286 children filed past the monument, each leaving one flower representing a child killed in Allegheny County in 1921. Washington, D.C., also had an enormous safety week with a monument in November 1922. In spring 1923, Louisville and Detroit did too.

Probably the grandest of all these markers was one of the last, unveiled in St. Louis in November 1923. Located downtown, it consisted of a broken column on a large cubical pedestal. The inscription equated speed with danger: “In Memory of Child Life Sacrificed on the Altar of Haste and Recklessness.” At the dedication ceremony, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy offered prayers, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. “Every child has the right to live,” said Rabbi Samuel Thurman, “if not the right to play in the streets, they at least have the right to cross them safely.” Children scattered flowers around the monument; overhead, the crew of a dirigible dropped more from far above.

What the Monuments Stood For

Other, less elaborate traffic safety campaigns were mounted in these years, many lacking a monument. Yet nearly all shared a common message that would become foreign to later generations, including our own. The campaigns in general, and the monuments in particular, stood not just for safety, but for the right to the safe use of the streets by all, including children. Parents were in no way faulted; indeed, mothers of children killed in the streets were singled out for public honor.

The safety campaigns also signified a conviction that traffic deaths, especially among children, were never excusable as chance events, and that if anyone’s access to the street must be restricted for the safety of children, it is the motorist who must bear the burden.

An editorial in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, written during the city’s Safety Week, made the message explicit:

It may be said that, due to the increasing number of automobiles, many automobile accidents are unavoidable. However, there is considerable carelessness in the very use of the term “unavoidable accident.” ... Supposing that these children who were killed, in most instances, were careless of their own safety; does this justify the drivers who were the real builders of the monument? By no means.

It was drivers, the editorial concluded, that bore sole responsibility by virtue of “exercising full control over the instrument of death.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch concurred “This dreadful slaughter must be stopped,” wrote the editors of the city’s largest daily. “If necessary, regulations severe and searching enough to do it must be adopted and enforced.” Even in the event of “a child darting into the street,” the editors agreed, “the plea of unavoidable accident ... is the perjury of a murderer.”

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At Washington, D.C.’s Safety Week in December 1, 1922, a Department of Agriculture float bore mock tombstones. The marker for “A. J. Walker” likely indicates the influence of the local automobile club, which participated in the events. Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The Post-Dispatch editorial included a warning to the automobile industry. “The automobile seems to be hurrying along to mechanical restrictions that will reduce its speed. ... If reasonable safety of life and limb can only be had by impairing the motor car’s efficiency, the motor car will have to pay that price.”

Motordom Fights Back

Among automotive interest groups — then sometimes known as “motordom” — this was not a price they were willing to pay. Even in city safety campaigns, motordom sometimes ridiculed the monuments to the victims of violent death in the streets. A float in Washington D.C.’s Safety Week include a mock grave for “A. J. Walker.” At a parade for Detroit’s Safety Week in May 1923, the Packard Motor Car Company entered a float bearing a sham tombstone that resembled Baltimore’s monument. Its inscription read: “Erected to the Memory of Mr. J. Walker. He Stepped from the Curb without Looking.” The Detroit Automobile Club awarded Packard a silver cup for this float.

As efforts to restrict driving grew, motordom intensified its opposition. Two weeks before the Post-Dispatch editorial that warned of “mechanical restrictions” to reduce speed, Cincinnati voters considered a ballot proposition that would have required car owners to equip their vehicles with speed governors preventing them from exceeding 25 miles per hour. About 42,000 city residents had signed petitions to get the initiative on the ballot. With the help of the auto industry, local interest groups organized a successful “Vote No” campaign.

The threat of mandatory mechanical speed limitation convinced motordom that it had to change how traffic safety was defined. Two months after the vote in Cincinnati, Fred Caley, the head of the National Motorists Association, denounced the safety monuments. A competitor to the American Automobile Association with about 350 member clubs, NMA was striving to prove itself the better national advocate for motorists’ interests. The safety monuments, Caley said in a press release, are “the most fanatical safety plan conceived within recent years.” He called them “memorials to the stupidity displayed in accident prevention.”

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Sign of the times: A marker placed by the Cincinnati Automobile Club warns drivers of a recent fatal crash site in 1921. Photo by Felix Koch/Cincinnati Museum Center/Getty Images

Caley was not alone. In the wake of the speed governor initiative, motordom withdrew its support from local safety campaigns, and asserted that recklessness, not speed, was the source of danger. Modern highway engineering can safely accommodate fast driving, they argued, and pedestrians can be reckless too — the Motor Age demands strict pedestrian regulation. They organized safety instruction in schools, introducing curricula that taught children that “the street is for autos.”

By the mid-1920s, motordom was working strenuously to make these positions the governing principles of traffic safety. In 1924 it inaugurated a traffic safety bureau that, in 1937, would become the Automotive Safety Foundation, funded entirely by the industry. Through a new national wire service, it distributed press releases that tended to blame careless walking, and it promoted urban highways as the modern way to make fast driving safe. Auto clubs had dreaded mothers’ conspicuous place in safety campaigns. In 1926, Charles Hayes, the president of the Chicago Motor Club, told his associates at a national meeting of the American Automobile Association: “The day of the emotional sob sister campaign has passed.” There would be no more official monuments.

The Legacy 

Motordom’s reframing of the traffic safety problem was substantially successful, and we live with its legacy. It takes the form of the tendency to presume that pedestrians’ rights are dispensable, and worth curtailing for the sake of motorists’ convenience. A collision that injures or kills a pedestrian is usually perceived as an individual failure rather than a systemic defect. Traffic deaths grew nearly invisible in the public sphere, which helps ensure that the losses make little public policy difference. The preferred means of protecting children from vehicles is to deny them any independent access to streets. 

Another legacy is the aversion to efforts to slow vehicles down for the safety of nondrivers. To avoid traffic “delays,” transportation departments deter walking, then use the scarcity of pedestrians as a reason not to accommodate them. Such policies elevate driving to a right — though if any mode of mobility is a right, that mode is walking, together with similarly undemanding modes such as cycling. These are the modes that are the most inclusive, the least expensive, the easiest to accommodate, the least threatening to others, and the most sustainable.

As we face record deaths and injuries among people walking and riding bikes, we have more reason than ever to question this status quo, and to ask how we came to inherit it. The story of the monument that Baltimore dedicated on June 12, 1922, is a good place to begin.

— Peter Norton is associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia. He is the author most recently of Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving. This article is based largely on material from his first book, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.


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This post originally appeared on CityLab and was published June 10, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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