Hitting Pedestrians Wasn’t Always an ‘Accident’: How Crossing the Street Became a Crime

One of the things that makes many,though not all, cities work is that they’re geared towards pedestrians. Unfortunately, our traffic laws along with our attitudes towards automobile-pedestrian collisions haven’t caught up to this reality. Actually, it’s more accurate to say they have regressed from a more enlightened attitude (boldface mine):

It wasn’t always like this. Browse through New York Times accounts of pedestrians dying after being struck by automobiles prior to 1930, and you’ll see that in nearly every case, the driver is charged with something like “technical manslaughter.” And it wasn’t just New York. Across the country, drivers were held criminally responsible when they killed or injured people with their vehicles.

So what happened? And when?

According to 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, the change is no accident (so to speak). He has done extensive research into how our view of streets was systematically and deliberately shifted by the automobile industry, as was the law itself.

“If you ask people today what a street is for, they will say cars,” says Norton. “That’s practically the opposite of what they would have said 100 years ago.”

“We’re talking less about laws than we are about norms,” says Norton. He cites a 1923 editorial from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – a solidly mainstream institution, as he points out. The paper opined that even in the case of a child darting out into traffic, a driver who disclaimed responsibility was committing “the perjury of a murderer.”

Norton explains that in the automobile’s earliest years, 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, as well. “There was a lot of anger in the early years,” says Norton. “A lot of resentment against cars for endangering streets.” Auto clubs and manufacturers realized they had a big image problem, Norton says, and they moved aggressively to change the way Americans thought about cars, streets, and traffic. “They said, ‘If we’re going to have a future for cars in the city, we have to change that. They’re being portrayed as Satan’s murdering machines.'”

The power imbalance is key (along with the slow death of common law in U.S. jurisprudence). If I run full-tilt into a car, I might break a mirror, crack a window, or dent a panel (and it will hurt like hell). If a car plows into the Mad Biologist, I lose. Big.

There are plenty of places that are built around cars. Cities, especially older ones, aren’t. The laws–and drivers–should recognize this.

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