How the Car Industry Outlawed Walking

In the News–By Jen Benepe

Women running across the street in Reno, Nevada, where pedestrian deaths are at an all time high.

Car lobbyists successfully ran a campaign against pedestrians to shift the blame for fatalities from motorists to the walkers by systematically painting them as looney birds who shouldn’t have crossed the streets.

It sounds like it happened today–when ads featuring drivers in empty streets are ubiquitous, featuring drivers speeding through residential zones, where not a single living person can be seen.  That obnoxious impediment–the pedestrian–has simply been painted out of the picture.

But car manufacturers were much sneakier than that. As early as the 1920’s they made a concerted effort to shift the blame for pedestrian fatalities through a series of measures, reported Aidan Lewis of the BBC News who traces the change from the 1920’s to now where motorists drive the roads as if they own them, and pedestrians are forced to the sidelines.

Only in New York City do pedestrians technically really have the right of way: in Los Angeles now, you have to ask permission from a driver to cross or you get a ticket.

A key moment, says  Peter Norton, a history professor at the University of Virginia, was a petition signed by 42,000 people in Cincinnati in 1923 to limit the speed of cars mechanically to 25mph (40kph). “Though the petition failed, an alarmed auto industry scrambled to shift the blame for pedestrian casualties from drivers to walkers,” writes the BBC.

Among the campaigns was one where auto makers had young boys pass out leaflets telling people how to cross, and especially where not to cross, leading to the impression that pedestrians, not drivers, were at fault when a person was struck and killed.

In most communities, planners just simply stopped planning for walkers, taking out sidewalks, crosswalks, meridians, and any other vestige of walking life. And voila, communities that are incredibly unsafe for –well–people.

Norton, who is the author of and author of “Fighting Traffic – The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City,” points to the recent resurgence of “blame the pedestrian acts”, such as the recent high profile arrest of an elderly Chinese man on 96th St. and Broadway in New York, who was left bloody and dazed after he was stopped by police.

For the rest of this brilliant article, check out the BBC. 

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