Fighting Traffic: A Century of Bloodshed

Automobiles did not always rule American streets. But when they took over, things sure got messy.

Well after the sale of Henry Ford's first Model T in 1908, pedestrians mingled with horses, carriages, vending carts and children playing in the street. The camaraderie soon became acrimonious, however.

And the losers?

More than 210,000 Americans, mostly pedestrians and about half of them children, were killed in traffic accidents from 1920 to 1929, estimates Peter Norton of the University of Virginia. That's four times the previous decade's number.

“Of all the many rivalries between various street users, the feud between pedestrians and motorists was the most relentless—and the bloodiest,” Norton said today.

It is a battle Norton argues is encapsulated in the redefinition of the word “jaywalker.”

In 1909, "jaywalker" was an obscure Midwestern colloquial term that referred to a country person who got in the way of other pedestrians in the city.

"Most people living in cities didn't think fast cars belonged in streets,” Norton explains. “So when cars hit pedestrians, it was always the driver's fault. Angry city residents wrote letters to their newspapers denouncing 'joy riders' and 'speed demons.'"

By 1930, "jaywalker" took on its modern meaning of a pedestrian improperly using a street dominated by cars. Norton will detail this argument in the book “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City” (MIT Press, 2007).

The battle continues today, Norton says, in arguments over installation of bike lanes and efforts to ban, slow down or reroute cars from certain streets for events or just for pedestrian enjoyment and safety.

People on foot continue to lose the battles, however.

Each year in the United States, about 4,800 pedestrians are killed in traffic accidents, and another 71,000 are injured. Also, about a quarter of all children aged five to nine who die in traffic accidents are pedestrians.