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1900-1930: The years of driving dangerously

Bill Loomis
Special to The Detroit News
  • Three-quarters of auto fatalities were pedestrians%2C especially children playing in the street.
  • In 1917%2C Detroit had 65%2C000 cars on the road%2C resulting in 7%2C171 accidents%2C 168 of them fatal.
  • By 1916%2C one-fourth of the Detroit police force -- 250 officers -- was used for managing traffic.
  • Detroit was the first city to use stop signs%2C lane markings%2C one-way streets and traffic signals.
"Car turns turtle, injuring 3" read the headline after this 1922 accident. Drivers often didn't understand that taking corners at high speed would have dire consequences.

The very first gasoline-powered vehicle driven on the streets of Detroit was built by engineer Charles Brady King in 1896. It went as fast as 20 miles per hour, which was described in the newspaper as "tearing along the street at a lively rate, dodging people and teams."

The transition from the horse age to the motorized age would prove to be very dangerous. At first speeding vehicles were not a big problem, with only a few of them on Detroit streets, but the situation grew serious quickly.

As early as 1908, auto accidents in Detroit were recognized as a menacing problem: In two months that summer, 31 people were killed in car crashes and so many were injured it went unrecorded.

Soon thousands of cars jammed Detroit streets, driven by inexperienced drivers. The city would lead the nation in managing this chaotic, enormous problem:

■ Detroit was the first city to use stop signs, lane markings, one-way streets and traffic signals.

■Detroit was among the first to have a police squad dedicated to traffic control, and second to New York City in creating a judicial court for traffic violations.

■The city drew national attention for using a tennis court line painting device to mark pedestrian crossing areas, safety zones and parking spaces.

In many ways, Detroit was the first city to transform the streets and the minds of people from the age of horses to the new, fast-paced age of motor vehicles, but it was a battle that took decades to win.

Is the car inherently evil?

In the first decade of the 20th century there were no stop signs, warning signs, traffic lights, traffic cops, driver's education, lane lines, street lighting, brake lights, driver's licenses or posted speed limits. Our current method of making a left turn was not known, and drinking-and-driving was not considered a serious crime.

There was little understanding of speed. A driver training bulletin called "Sportsmanlike Driving" had to explain velocity and centrifugal force and why when drivers took corners at high speed their cars skidded or sometimes "turned turtle" (flipped over).

Speeding Auto Turns Turtle. Ten Are Hurt

"An automobile containing a bridal couple, several wedding guests, three children, and many bottles of liquor rounded the corner from Labelle Avenue onto Woodward Sunday evening and turned turtle going at least 40 miles an hour." - Detroit Free Press, June 29, 1914

Early vehicles were terrifyingly loud for horses and their owners, compounding the problem as their numbers grew quickly. Statistics kept by the nascent Automobile Club of America recorded that in 1909 there were 200,000 motorized vehicles in the United States. Just seven years later, in 1916, there were 2.25 million.

Politicians, police and judges debated how to control them: What was the law of the road, and who was guilty or innocent in cases of lawsuit and litigation?

"The Law of the Automobile," a book first published in 1906 by lawyer Xenophone P. Huddy, discussed the legal ramifications of new concepts such as "speeding," the purpose and function of the street, and the rights of pedestrians and unprotected children who played in the street (there were no such things as children's playgrounds at that time).

Serious debate was held in courtrooms and in editorials over whether the automobile was inherently evil. The state of Georgia's Court of Appeals wrote: "Automobiles are to be classed with ferocious animals and … the law relating to the duty of owners of such animals is to be applied ... . However, they are not to be classed with bad dogs, vicious bulls, evil disposed mules, and the like."

Autos everywhere in Detroit

In 1917, Detroit and its suburbs had 65,000 cars on the road, resulting in 7,171 accidents and 168 fatalities. Three-fourths of the victims were pedestrians.

Detroit differed from New York City and the east coast, where most automobiles were driven by uniformed chauffeurs hired by the wealthy. In Detroit everyone from nearly all incomes was driving.

One family was driven around Detroit by their 11-year-old son. It was common for light truck delivery wagons to be driven by 14-year-old boys who were constantly badgered to get deliveries done by driving faster.

One young woman was detained by a policeman after driving on a Detroit sidewalk and killing several people. It had been her 26th arrest for reckless driving. She said she suffered from blackouts.

Streetcars, which ran up the center of the streets, were becoming the most dangerous place in the city for pedestrians. Disembarking streetcar riders had to run a gauntlet of racing cars, trucks, motorcycles and horse-drawn buggies to cross the street safely. Pedestrians often could not judge how close a fast-approaching car was to them and scrambled like squirrels to get out of the way.

The most appalling tragedies were the number of children struck and killed by autos as they played in the street, many times in front of their own homes. In the 1920s, 60 percent of automobile fatalities nationwide were children under age 9. One gruesome Detroit article described an Italian family whose 18-month-old son was hit and wedged in the wheel well of a car. As the hysterical father and police pried out the child's dead body, the mother went into the house and committed suicide.

"Five children, ranging in age from 2 to 9 years, were injured when a red touring car crashed into the group of little folks … while they were playing in the street on Saturday afternoon. … When [the driver] crashed into the group of children he apparently stalled his machine, but he leaped out, cranked it and sped away east on Monroe leaving the injured children in the street." -- Detroit Free Press, June 22, 1919

A streetcar safety demonstration on Woodward Avenue, circa 1925, shows the wrong way to disembark.  Streetcars ran in the middle of the streets, making it hazardous for pedestrians to get on and off.

Speed demons and the law

The main cause of motor vehicle accidents was seen as excessive speeding. Until 1909 there was no regulation of street traffic in Detroit. The courts and police decided to address the problem with a simple approach: Set the speed limit to match the pace of horse-drawn wagons, such as 5 miles per hour. Make the streets as slow and safe as they were before cars.

After all, the automobile in the 1910s was not yet considered an essential mode of transportation, and it was their speeding that confused pedestrians, frightened horses and tore up the roadways. But the "normal" speed from the horse age was so slow that automobile owners had difficulty keeping their cars from stalling out.

(An extreme solution was enacted in England, where in small towns the law required the automobilist to notify a village constable, who would walk in front of the car waving two red warning flags while the driver followed slowly behind.)

If drivers broke the law, the punishment was severe, with heavy fines, jail sentences, and charges of manslaughter and murder when pedestrians were hit and killed. In one afternoon in 1911 police hauled in 450 people before Recorders Court Judge John Connolly on speeding charges.

However, the weakness of this strategy became clear as traffic got "thicker and thicker" as it was described, and the police struggled to keep even major streets safe and slow. The initial police effort was called the Broadway Squad, copying a program started in New York City. Nine older policemen were assigned to help people, typically elderly, cross the now-treacherous downtown intersections.

This was abolished and replaced with the Traffic Squad — one sergeant and 12 officers who rotated in four-man shifts at Woodward and State Street. They devised a signaling method to unravel traffic "tangles" and "blockades," both terms from the horse and buggy days.

As Detroit Traffic Superintendent William Rutledge described in an annual report, "The upraised hand is the signal to stop, and the swinging hand across the body the signal to start."

The signaling officers drew crowds of pedestrian onlookers.

"The drivers who happened to notice the signals of the officers did not seem to understand what was wanted and drove by, making it necessary for the traffic officer to run after them and explain the meaning of the signal. The officers had to show considerable patience." — from "Story of the Detroit Police Department, 1916-17," published by the City of Detroit

By 1916, one-fourth of the entire Detroit police force — 250 officers — was now used for managing traffic. On May 25, 1920, Detroit was second in the nation after New York to start a traffic court. It was announced the same day that the 17th person had been killed in the first 24 days of May. Zeana Coatley, 4, was struck in front of a post office — the eighth child killed that month.

Soon the police admitted publicly they could not keep up with traffic and could not afford to add more men to street safety. The city was losing the war against reckless driving.

Lafayette at Third Street, an intersection in desperate need of a traffic light in 1928.

Tolling bells and safety parades

After World War I, as accidents continued to soar, drivers were being labeled in newspapers as "remorseless murderers," their danger to public safety likened to an epidemic disease. In Detroit and other cities angry mobs were dragging reckless drivers out of cars.

One notable example in Detroit was John Harrigan, a wealthy 26-year-old from Grosse Pointe who, while driving drunk, hit and killed a city street worker. He was convicted of manslaughter and paraded in handcuffs by police in the Safety Parade of 1922.

The Detroit Safety Council in 1919 had bells on fire stations, churches, schools and City Hall ring twice a day in memory of the street auto fatalities. Teachers and sometimes police officers would read to school classes the names of children killed and how they died. Other cities printed "murder maps" showing locations of automobile deaths. Maudlin posters for "No Accident Week" showed young mothers covered in their child's blood and beckoning to heaven.

Safety parades, started in the 1920s, became an emotional relief valve for public loss. The busiest downtown Detroit intersections were labeled with giant "A," "B" or "C" cards to remind people to "Always Be Careful." Thousands watched as hulking wrecks of cars were towed down Woodward with placards that read "He tried to make 90!" or "Follow this one to the cemetery."

Some wrecks featured mannequin drivers dressed as Satan and bloody corpses as passengers. Children crippled from accidents rode in the back of open cars waving to other children watching from sidewalks. Washington, D.C., and New York City held parades including 10,000 children dressed as ghosts, representing each a death that year. They were followed by grieving young mothers who wore white or gold stars to indicate they'd lost a child.

Detroit's better ideas

In addition to the dangers drivers were creating, nuisance issues of parking and blocked streets were also a concern in Detroit. Multi-storied commercial buildings had no parking spaces and there were no laws or even rules of etiquette for parking; people simply stopped their cars in front of a building and left them for hours.

In residential neighborhoods homes had no garages or even driveways, so streets were blocked with cars as well. Derogatory names emerged; inconsiderate drivers were dubbed "fliverboobs" by the American Automobile Association. Other new terms were born, such as "hit and run" drivers. "Joyriders" stole open cars and took off at reckless speeds, typically abandoning the vehicle or destroying it in an accident. "Road hogs," "speed maniacs" and "Sunday drivers" began appearing in the newspapers. "Juggernauts" were cars out of control that plowed through crowds of people waiting for a street car:

"Screaming pedestrians were scattered like ninepins … some were bowled over or tossed against store fronts. [The driver's companion], evidently frightened by the cries of the crowd, leapt from his seat and running swiftly disappeared into the darkness." – Detroit Free Press, Jan. 20, 1919

By 1915 the automobile had become an essential method of transportation in Detroit, so it was now impractical to tell people to drive at 5 mph. The city also was staking a claim as the center of the motor vehicle industry; therefore, something had to be done about the gruesome daily publicity and the public's fear and anger at the automobile.

In some cities the courts had begun to consider implementing engine-mounted governors to limit a vehicle's speed – a bete noir to the auto industry, since the strongest sales appeal of autos was their speed. And as long as pedestrian deaths were attributed solely to drivers, the automobile industry had a huge public relations problem. In Detroit, one of their own stepped up to find solutions: former Ford Motor Co. executive James Couzens.

Couzens was a short, cigar-chomping Canadian who was considered one of the most pugnacious executives in the auto industry: He quit his job as Ford's vice president of finance after years of friction and a final shouting match with Henry Ford. He resigned in 1913 with stock worth $38 million, and became Detroit's commissioner of street railways, and later its police commissioner, mayor and, eventually, U.S. senator.

Couzens attacked the problem of poor driving and increasing numbers of vehicles in two ways. First, he insisted that at least adult pedestrians were just as guilty as drivers of causing accidents through careless street crossing and jaywalking. He insisted that pedestrians cross at designated corners. This caused pushback from people who hated the cars. City Council Alderman Sherman Littlefield fought Couzens, remarking, "They dog the people enough as it is. I'm not in favor of trying to herd people into certain places to cross streets."

The second approach Couzens and others began to develop was a way to manage the streets without direct police interaction, which had become impossible citywide. They sought out new ideas using new technology for the streets. By the mid-1920s Detroit would be recognized as one of the most innovative cities in the country for traffic management and safety. Couzens' bulldog personality got changes implemented.

Very basics of driving were not taught nor understood, such as the left turn. Many accidents and pedestrian casualties were caused by "corner cutters" — drivers who did not make a left turn by driving through an intersection and then turning left into the far, perpendicular lane as we do today. Corner cutters made quick left turns the same way we make right turns, hitting unsuspecting pedestrians and other cars.

Detroit police implemented "silent policemen" -- ement pylons emblazoned with a sign that read "Stay Right" to force drivers into a proper left turn.

More Detroit 'firsts'

Most irritating were drivers who parked wherever expedient, which frequently meant in intersections or in front of fire hydrants. Couzens noted in an article published in Automobile Magazine that some buildings with 500 offices had only 10 parking spaces. Detroit police drew national attention for using tennis court line marking equipment to establish "crossing zones," "safety zones" and "no parking" areas. The first centerline on a U.S. highway appeared in Michigan in 1911.

The first traffic lights, at the time called Street Semaphores, were invented and developed in Detroit. At first they had to be manually switched, but in the 1920s the city gradually installed automatic electric lights.

Also in 1911, Detroit claimed to be the first city to successfully experiment with one-way streets. It began in Eastern Market to improve traffic flow and deliveries, but it also gained popularity on Belle Isle as people cruised around the island. Less successful was the idea of "channelizing" streets — dedicating certain streets to one type of vehicle, mostly delivery trucks or taxi cabs.

The first U.S. stop sign was used in Detroit in 1915, and the first traffic lights, at the time called Street Semaphores, were invented and developed in Detroit. Their success would be known nationally as "the Detroit Plan." The original design was a green metal circle with green light and a red metal star with red light. A policeman stood on a crow's nest platform above the street and manually changed the signal from red to green. The first was set up at Woodward and Grand Boulevard.

The officers in crow's nests had whistles which they blasted ten seconds before changing the signal, but they also typically whistled or yelled at drivers and pedestrians to keep things safe and moving along. The first electrically operated "post semaphore," an unmanned automated traffic light, was developed in Detroit and set up at John R. and East Grand Boulevard in 1922. For the first time an amber light was added to show a signal was about to change, accompanied by a clanging bell. It cost one-tenth of the price of the old manned crow's nest system.

Illegal parking continued to be a persistent problem. As Couzens wrote for a 1917 annual police report: "Educational methods did not bring about the desired results, so it was deemed advisable to institute a system of intensive disciplinary training." In short, he ordered illegally parked cars towed for the first time. Within six months the new Detroit Towing Squad hauled 10,737 cars to a vacant lot.

As Couzen concluded, "This proved to be something of a shock to the thoughtless and careless, but it proved effective."

By the mid-1920s a national, uniform approach to street and highway safety was formed under the direction of U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Automobile manufacturers began to improve reliability and adopt safety features such as turn signals, brake lights, safety glass and standard head lamps. States required drivers to take tests and to be licensed. In the 1930s driver's education began to be required. The days of free-for-all driving were over.

For further reading on this subject, Bill Loomis recommends "Fighting Traffic, the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City" by Peter D. Norton. Bill Loomis's new book on Detroit history "On This Day" will be released in August 2015.