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Traffic Fatalities: How Manslaughter Became "Accidents"

Sarah Goodyear chronicles the transition of streets in America from public space to the exclusive domain of autos. Professor Peter Norton, author of "Fighting Traffic: Dawn of the Motor Age" explains the ingenuous strategy of the auto industry.
May 2, 2012, 5am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Before Goodyear wrote about how Amsterdam and Copenhagen became so bicycle-friendly, she provided a short history of how the car, more precisely, the auto industry, did take over American streets. One of the more fascinating episodes took place in 1923 in Cincinnati when residents, outraged at all the children killed by autos, placed a ballot measure that "would have required all vehicles in the city to be fitted with speed governors limiting them to 25 miles per hour."

"Peter Norton, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, has done extensive research into how our view of streets was systematically and deliberately shifted by the automobile industry, as was the law itself."

Historically, "the principles of common law applied to crashes. In the case of a collision, the larger, heavier vehicle was deemed to be at fault. The responsibility for crashes always lay with the driver. Public opinion was on the side of the pedestrian. "There was a lot of anger in the early years," says Norton. "A lot of resentment against cars for endangering streets."

To respond to the Cincinnati referendum, the auto industry went into overdrive, sending letters to motorists, enlisting dealers and local auto clubs, and most of all, organizing the Detroit auto companies themselves. And they didn't stop after defeating the referendum.

"The industry lobbied to change the law, promoting the adoption of traffic statutes to supplant common law. The statutes were designed to restrict pedestrian use of the street and give primacy to cars. The idea of "jaywalking" – a concept that had not really existed prior to 1920 – was enshrined in law."

Thanks to Pat Carstensen

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Published on Tuesday, April 24, 2012 in The Atlantic Cities
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