Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Vintage Cars were also "Death Cars": Autoist Erasure in History

"The Modern Juggernaut" (NYT 1924, detail)

Our autoism has really accomplished the erasure of the dangers of cars and car use. In stories this year about car museums, the lethality of cars and the history of it are totally elided.

from the Sunday paper

"high-performance" or just dangerous?
(from January)

You may recall from The Great Gatsby (1925):

The "death car" as the newspapers called it, didn't stop; it came out of the gathering darkness, wavered tragically for a moment and then disappeared around the next bend. Michaelis wasn't even sure of its color--he told the first policeman that it was light green. The other car, the one going toward New York, came to rest a hundred yards beyond, and its driver hurried back to where Myrtle Wilson, her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick, dark blood with the dust.

A NY Times article about Herbert Hoover and a traffic safety conference showed a terrible car driven by a Grim Reaper figure, "The Modern Juggernaut," with the dead scattered underneath. Note the climbing chart of deaths in the lower right.

NY Times, November 23rd, 1924

The car as monstrous machine, itself harmful, and also driven by someone reckless, was a common trope and is the context for Gatsby. Fitzgerald was not exaggerating with a metaphor for dramatic effect, but was tapping into a real and prevalent sense of a dangerous machine that imperiled regular people routinely.

Part of this history too is the invention of jaywalking. The auto industry and autoist interests shifted blame from drivers, cars, and roads to people on foot. Redefining the street, they created the new violation of jaywalking with new norms in favor of drivers and speed. Pedestrians needed control, not so much cars and drivers.

Pedestrian control as "reasonable" January 18th, 1925

If we are going to have an honest history of cars (and the vintage car enthusiasts likely want nostalgia more than even-handed assessment), there are other sides to emphasize also. Our culture of autoism is so ingrained now it might seem like "common sense," but it was contested and debated before it prevailed.

Over a decade we got worse
(LAB chart, comments added)

One ingredient in improving our current approach to safety will be a more accurate and direct understanding of the lethality of cars, the ways our streets were reconfigured, and the history of our current autoist subsidies, culture, and land use patterns. Car museums, and writing about them, could have a place in this.

"a radical revision of our conception of
what a city street is for"

See elsewhere:


mark wigg said...

Ralph Nader saved millions of lives because of his campaign for auto safety. The auto industry fought his efforts and tried to destroy him personally.
Now we have autonomous cars on our roads that do not see pedestrians or cyclists. This is killing people and will kill many more unless we tell the manufacturers that we won't allow cars with autonomous driving to be on our roads until they can see and avoid hitting people.
When a car is autonomous, do we need to change the description of accidents, so it is not a driver but an autonomous car that killed the pedestrian. Who gets arrested and sued?

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

I have not kept up on the question of liability with robot cars, which you are right to ask about. (A few posts here are tagged "robot cars," and it is an ongoing secondary interest here!) The robot interests definitely would like to have people on foot wear beacons or be restricted to certain zones, and to shift liability onto more vulnerable road users.

We are still very far from robot cars solving our safety problem!

Walker said...

Alice Singer’s outstanding recent book “There Are No Accidents” is a must-read.

Also, this scathing look at Elon Musk

Walker said...

Ooops, Jessie Singer