A cyclist and pedestrian attempt to cross busy San Pedro Avenue before vehicles arrive. Photo by Scott Ball.

People used to freak out over traffic deaths. When cars first began to appear on city streets, traffic fatalities were extremely rare. The probability of someone dying from a car crash was 1 in 2.1 million. Ten people could be killed by being hit by an asteroid before someone would die from an auto accident.

Figure 1 -  growth in auto ownership and fatalities

In 1900, there was one auto for every 9,500 people. Automobiles were considered expensive “toys,” and pedestrians and transit dominated the use of the public space of the city street. According to historian Peter D. Norton, “Boys of 10, 12 or 14 would be selling newspapers, delivering telegrams, and running errands.”

By 1930, because of Henry Ford’s Model T, there was one car for every five people. In a matter of a couple of decades, cars filled the streets and increasing conflicts with pedestrians led to a sharp rise in auto fatalities. Sadly, many of the victims were children.

Pedestrians cross the busy intersection of Audubon Drive and San Pedro Avenue. Photo by Scott Ball.
Pedestrians cross the intersection of Audubon Drive and San Pedro Avenue. Photo by Scott Ball.

The public responded in outrage. Editorials and political cartoons of the day used terms like “vampire driver,” “death driver,” and “speed demons.” Drivers were accused of being infected with “motor madness” or “motor rabies.”

Cities began to control the use of automobiles. In 1923, according to Norton, 42,000 Cincinnati residents signed a petition for a ballot initiative requiring cars to have a governor limiting them to 25 miles per hour. Local auto dealers organized in opposition, and the measure failed.

Figure 2 - Cincinnati ad

The auto industry realized that it needed a campaign to reframe the car safety issue. Among other actions, “jaywalking” was invented, made illegal, and thereby put the blame of traffic fatalities on pedestrians. This campaign has taken many forms over the decades and has been extremely successful in making auto fatalities a non-issue.

Today in the U.S., traffic fatalities are the number one cause of death. Traffic fatalities per capita are twice the Canadian rate. And, Canada’s rate is as much as twice that of other industrialized countries. According to an AAA study, the total cost of traffic crashes is more than three times the cost of congestion – $299.5 billion for traffic crashes as compared to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s estimate of $97.7 billion for congestion. To date, fatalities from traffic accidents are more than twice the number of American soldiers killed in all wars.

Figure 3 - fatalities by war and cars

Recently, there has been a move internationally and in some U.S. cities termed “Vision Zero” to work toward reducing, if not eliminating, traffic fatalities. New York City, for example, has developed a Vision Zero Action Plan that notes, “No level of fatality on city streets is inevitable or acceptable.” As part of the work being done in New York, a comparison is made between New York City and some of the worst U.S. cities for traffic fatalities. The resulting chart shows San Antonio is the most dangerous of the cities examined.


With many planning initiatives under way in San Antonio, traffic fatalities should surely be one of the issues addressed by these efforts.

*Featured/top image: A cyclist and pedestrian attempt to cross busy San Pedro Avenue before vehicles arrive. Photo by Scott Ball.

Related Stories:

Commentary: Transportation is a Quality of Life Issue

The Case for Funding Pedestrian and Cycling Safety

Bringing Vision Zero (Pedestrian Deaths) to San Antonio

25 Mph Speed Limit Would End Pedestrian Fatalities

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Bill Barker

Bill Barker is recognized as a fellow by both the Institute of Transportation Engineers and the American Institute of Certified Planners.