Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Traffic Violence was Bad in 2019 and even Worse in 1919

The numbers are superficially similar, 43 in 1919 and 49 in 2019. The number of traffic fatalities in Portland seems hardly changed after a century. But of course cherry-picking numbers like that hides so much more than it reveals.

War, death, and speed:
Aerial combat in World War I as trope for driving*
November 23rd, 1919
Yesterday the Oregonian published their year-end summary of traffic violence. Last year, a terrible year for traffic death, they note drivers killed at least 49 people.

Today on Oregonian front page
Exactly 100 years ago, for 1919 Portland newspapers reported drivers killed 43 people, "an alarming increase over 1918" when drivers killed 28 people.

January 1st, 1920
But by any measure of rate - per capita, per car trip, per miles driven, per car - the 1919 carnage is nearly an order of magnitude worse than 2019's.

In 1920 Portland had about 250,000 residents, and today about 650,000. Just in very broad terms, today there are a lot more people, a lot more cars, a lot more driving. The 43 deaths in 1919 are distributed over a much smaller population and count of any variable: Fewer people, fewer cars, less driving.

When autoist apologists say "it's safer today," they are right in some ways. With seat belts, airbags, and crumple zones; better enforcement, licensing, and education; and autoist road engineering and signing - all these are important ways traffic safety has improved.

But that is mainly in relative terms.

Today we still kill and maim too many people, and non-auto users of the roads have been disadvantaged by practices that protect those in automobiles.

I don't know what the Salem numbers are, and if I find them I will update here. (But we should also consider that there is a good bit of random fluctuation from year to year, and that the more conclusive thing, the signal in the noise, is the longer-term trend line.)

Oregonian back on December 22
This shows the upward trend
The mixed traffic ecosystem offered more choice and more freedom, and the streetcar scaled urban fabric and grid offered the best urban vitality, but it is also true that the early auto age was more lethal. Looking back to the late streetcar era can't just be nostalgia. The machine technology** and its adoption by consumers developed much more quickly than the cities and culture in which they were used, and as a kind of rapacious invasive took over the streets with pernicious consequences we struggle with still.

It's the cars, their speed and power, that were, and still remain, a very great problem.

* The slow-down/oversupply in bike sales that started in 1898 and coincided with the end the first bike boom is at least partly related to young men going into the army and the Spanish-American War, no longer purchasing new bikes, and their used bicycles going into the market.

A factor in our autoism is the demobilization of 1919, the adrenaline rush of this still new and powerful machine, and the judgment of young male drivers.

War is an important part of the story of autoism's rise. We will see this again in the post-war suburb and Eisenhower Interstate System of mid-century. And still see it with oil and the Middle East.

** Early 20th century papers often called cars "machines," and we may try that out here for a bit, to see if that helps underline the notion of a person in charge of operating a machine.

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