Historicist: Pedestrian-blaming, 1930s style

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Historicist: Pedestrian-blaming, 1930s style

Toronto struggles to reduce the number of traffic fatalities during the holiday season.

The Toronto Telegram, May 26, 1934.

The Toronto Telegram, May 26, 1934.

The Christmas of 1936 was a black one for Toronto. On December 26, newspapers reported on the holiday slaughter: three people killed, at least six people injured by hit-and-run drivers, and more than one hundred separate traffic collisions. In the years that followed, politicians, police officials, and concerned citizens promoted annual December public safety campaigns in the hopes of making Toronto’s streets safer over the holidays.

Books dedicated to the history of the automobile in Canada often describe Canadians’ “love affair” with the automobile in the early 20th century. Toronto newspapers of the 1920s and 1930s, however, reveal that the new vehicles were not universally embraced. Articles express widespread public anxiety about the growing number of traffic collisions on city streets and highways; many Toronto newspapers featured regular photo arrays of smashed vehicles in and around the city.

In his 2008 book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter D. Norton notes that American cities were similarly preoccupied with traffic deaths at this time. “Even in the United States there is little evidence in cities in the 1920s of a ‘love affair’ with the automobile,” Norton writes. “With the sudden arrival of the automobile came a new kind of mass death. Most of the dead were city people. Most the car’s urban victims were pedestrians, and most of the pedestrian victims were children and youths. Early observers rarely blamed the pedestrians who strolled into the roadway wherever they chose, or the parents who let their children play in the street. Instead, most city people blamed the automobile.”

Sign posted near Stanley Barracks in 1922, after a driver hit a pedestrian.  Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Sign posted near Stanley Barracks in 1922, after a driver hit a pedestrian. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

By the 1930s, Norton writes, American perceptions of street use were changing, thanks in large part to dedicated lobbying by motor interests. City streets were no longer considered public space where pedestrians and pre-motor vehicles enjoyed the clear right of way. Automobiles, previously seen as a dangerous interloper on city streets, were increasingly seen as the primary road users, and pedestrians, for the first time, were expected to take some share of responsibility for their own street safety.

An editorial in the March 1926 issue of the [Canadian] Public Health Journal noted that “In Canada…there are relatively fewer automobiles and congestion is much less acute than in our neighbouring Republic,” and that the Ontario Safety League had identified Toronto as being, “with its large number of cars and with all its congestion, [the] safest city on this continent from the automobile menace standpoint.” During the late 1920s, however, the number of traffic fatalities rose, and Torontonians grew increasingly concerned.

A 1934 article in the Toronto Telegram by Tom Levine proclaimed the automobile to be the “King of the Killers.” “No longer need the Grim Reaper be depicted as an old man,” wrote Levine. “Discarded are his flowing robes, his long white beard, and his scythe. In their stead now stands man’s modern invention, the Road Juggernaut, with the Grim Reaper at the wheel.” Levine’s article particularly addressed the large number of children who had been struck by drivers, and lamented that so few of the cases which had gone to court had resulted in jail sentences, much less convictions, for the drivers. “Invariably the learned judges on the bench issue warnings generally in summing up the charges for the juries. They point out that pedestrians have rights on the streets, but it has become a recognized fact now, that so have automobiles—and so the pedestrian stakes his life, while the motorist risks a bent bumper!”

In 1935, the Star published a description of a thesis by Roy Caldwell, from the University of Toronto’s department of psychology. Caldwell had studied motor accidents across Ontario, and found that most took place on roads which were straight and dry and which were kept in good condition. He also found that fewer than 3 per cent of collisions involved drivers who were intoxicated. Amongst his recommendations were that “the drivers examination, instead of being a purely physical examination on present driving ability should attempt those factors that will cause or prevent an accident, such as intelligence, reaction time, [and] regard for the rights of others.”

Toronto police teaching pedestrians to obey traffic lights.  The Globe and Mail, January 3, 1935.

Toronto police teaching pedestrians to obey traffic lights. The Globe and Mail, January 3, 1935.

Toronto pedestrians, too, were now being urged to take control of their own safety. In 1934, the Star’s regular motorists’ column described the need for increased safety on the streets at night, and suggested that “Pedestrians, too, should recognize the hazards of night and would be wise not to insist too much on legal rights or immediate convenience, in the interest of public safety…Highway safety engineers advise that pedestrians after dark carry some sort of a light or bright coloured object to attract the motorist’s attention.”

Toronto struggled to find a means of reducing traffic deaths, and a variety of solutions were suggested. Cars were inspected to ensure that their brakes were in good working order. Efforts were made to improve the lighting of city streets and highways. The number of traffic lights in the city was increased, and police were called upon to ensure that both drivers and pedestrians obeyed them.

The Ontario Safety League organized regular “safety weeks” to promote a variety of practices, including those specific to traffic safety. Toronto Mayor Jimmy Simpson spoke of the “alarming increase in fatalities” at the opening of one such safety week in October 1935. “As the mayor of Toronto, I am anxious that this city shall reduce accidents to a minimum, for the burdens placed on our people and our institutions are growing at an alarming rate.” Three years later, his term as mayor now finished, Simpson was driving east along Harbour Street and reportedly drove through a stop sign, colliding with a streetcar on Bay Street, killing both himself and his companion in the passenger seat. The Star, in accordance with its policy on traffic collisions, published a photo of the wrecked vehicle.

The Toronto Star, September 26, 1938.

The Toronto Star, September 26, 1938.

Some in Toronto called for increased regulation and education of motorists, including harsher penalties for those caught disobeying traffic laws. Drivers and local motor organizations, however, regularly agitated against such regulation. “The good results effected by the police by these means,” wrote Arthur H. Rowan, statistician for the Ontario Department of Highways, “were unfortunately minimized by the antagonism aroused in the minds of motorists by what they considered unfair practices adopted for regulating traffic.”

The carnage of the 1936 holiday season, when more than 25 people were reported injured in Toronto traffic collisions on Christmas Eve, appalled the local press and public officials. According to the Star, “14 motorists were arrested on charges of manslaughter, criminal negligence, [and] reckless or drunken driving.” The Telegram reported that 20 individual “accidents” took place on Ossington Avenue alone. As was the custom at the time, the local press named both the victims and the drivers, and when their identities were not yet known, published physical descriptions.

“If we had released a bunch of maniacs from 999 Queen St. W. we would probably not have had more serious results than we had yesterday, Toronto’s blackest Christmas,” Dr. A.J. Irwin of the Ontario Temperance Union told the Toronto Star. Other articles quoted several city officials, who called for increased caution from drivers and pedestrians over the remainder of the holiday season. “When the public wants accidents curbed enough and wants it badly enough, improvements in the accident record will begin to appear,” Police Chief Dennis Draper predicted in the Telegram.

Police Chief Dennis Draper, shown here "being chaired by Nobles" at the "Ramses Tample."  City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 19140.

Police Chief Dennis Draper, shown here “being chaired by Nobles” at the “Ramses Tample.” City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 19140.

The Globe and Mail ran an editorial with the headline “Yes, the Morgue is ready,” which laid much of the blame on those who had consumed alcohol before getting behind the wheel. Fearing an equally bloody New Year’s, the editorial urged caution in the coming days. After reminding readers that alcohol slowed drivers’ reaction time, the piece added “The motorist alone is not to blame. A large proportion of accidents is due to the carelessness, thoughtlessness, or stupidity of the pedestrian.”

The Globe and Mail reported that “safety on New Year’s Eve became a subject of general conversation,” and that “the week’s campaign of advice and warning, given wide publicity in the press,” resulted in fewer cars on the road and a less tragic [New Year’s] holiday, in which “the spirit of recklessness and indifference toward others was not in evidence.” The safety warnings were generally deemed effective by the press, and credited with making Toronto streets safer over New Year’s. “True,” conceded the Globe, “there were accidents and one fatality, but nothing approaching the lawlessness that marred the Christmas holiday.”

The Globe and Mail, December 22, 1939.

The Globe and Mail, December 22, 1939.

As Christmas approached in 1937, the city sought to avoid a repeat of the 1936 traffic record. The Telegram took a particular interest in the rural sections of the Toronto suburbs, noting that the highways were often poorly lit at night, and suggested that the 40 miles per hour speed limit (64 km/h) be lowered to 30 miles per hour (48 km/h) at night. The Telegram also reported that in Aurora, where a child walking to school had recently been struck and killed by a truck driver, local residents were planning to ask York Township for the provision of a school bus. “One parent,” reported the Telegram, “has offered to provide two teams of horses which would be driven down the highway. Between them the children, he says, could walk in safety, the horses forming a moving barrier against automobiles and trucks.”

In Toronto itself, City officials launched a safety campaign early in the month in the hopes of keeping the Christmas traffic fatality numbers down. Chief Draper warned that the police would be on the lookout for reckless drivers, and the newspapers ran their usual editorials imploring the public to think about safety. The campaign proved unsuccessful.

In 1937, the city saw a record 123 separate traffic accidents over Christmas. Between 5 and 6 p.m. in the evening alone, more than 15 people had been injured. Some of the collisions involved multiple vehicles, and at least one involved a motorist driving into a parked car, but most of the injured were pedestrians. “The city Ambulance Department were unable to cope with the situation,” reported the Globe and Mail. “So fast were the collisions being reported that the police were unable to make reports until a late hour.” Toronto police had stopped numerous vehicles, confiscating them when the drivers appeared to be intoxicated.

The Toronto Telegram, December 23, 1937.

The Toronto Telegram, December 23, 1937.

There were two traffic deaths in the city on Christmas Day: a blind newspaper vendor, Thomas Beedle, and his wife, who had been walking, arm-in-arm, to his vendor’s stand at St. Clair and Lansdowne. The Globe and Mail reported that the two had crossed with a green light, and were struck by a motorist who had ignored his red light, tossing the couple into the air. The driver, who was reportedly not drunk, was tracked down and arrested seven hours later and charged with manslaughter. As usual, the Toronto newspapers published the names and addresses of all who had been admitted to hospital over Christmas, as well as those who were facing charges.

The “toll,” as the newspapers now regularly called the number of traffic dead, was similarly bad across the province, with the consensus being that 1937 was even worse than the “Black Christmas” of 1936. Hamilton Chief Constable Ernest K. Goodman proposed that, in future, all motor vehicles be banned on the streets on Christmas Day except those deemed necessary by the government. This suggestion was openly rejected by others, who blamed recent decisions to raise speed limits, or the lack of severe penalties for bad driving. Many saw drunken driving as the main problem, and Premier Mitchell Hepburn was roundly criticized for allowing the sale of liquor later than usual during the holidays. “In almost every case on Christmas Eve, drunkenness was responsible for accidents,” Chief Draper told the Telegram. “It must be stopped.” In the same article, Police Inspector Edward Dunn of the Traffic Division claimed that “motorists were not entirely to blame…There were very many careless pedestrians and they, as well as drivers, should be restrained.”

Premier Mitchell Hepburn.  City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1030.

Premier Mitchell Hepburn. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1030.

The Globe and Mail wrote that “most people on foot show too much indifference to possible danger at intersections. They know that a car may be stopped promptly; so it may if brakes are in good condition, but not all cars are in good condition, and not all drivers are prompt in action.” The Telegram put some of the blame on”“the unwisdom of raising the speed limit to 30 miles an hour (48 km/h) within the boundaries of the city…Unfortunately, there is a large percentage of the population who…regard the speed limit, no matter what it may be, as a justifiable rate of speed under any and all circumstances, and one which may be safely exceeded within reasonable limitations. It is sad but true that the average man or woman is not fit to be entrusted with a high-powered motor even when sober.”

In response to one Globe and Mail editorial which attributed the high numbers of 1937 traffic deaths to the easy availability of liquor, one reader wrote in to say “I fail to see in your paper of Monday morning’s issue where anyone died of drinking poisoned liquor over this festive weekend…As long as the Government sells motor licenses and driving permits to boys and girls and a great many older people that should not have them…you are going to have accidents. Letting these people drive 30 miles an hour in a great city like Toronto is inviting accidents. The automobile has made a great many people careless and thoughtless. They have not even the thought of self-preservation, let alone thought of anyone else. It is simple motor intoxication and does not involve any alcohol.”

These photo arrays were frequently seen in Toronto newspapers in the 1930s.  The Toronto Telegram, December 23, 1938.

These photo arrays were frequently seen in Toronto newspapers in the 1930s. The Toronto Telegram, December 23, 1938.

In April 1938, W.G. Robertson, general manager of the Ontario Motor League, claiming that increasing traffic regulations were unfair to motorists, called for increased pedestrian responsibility and regulation. After citing examples of pedestrians ignoring their own safety needs, Robertson suggested in the Globe that “reckless walking be made a punishable offence…Most of these speeding walkers are not expected anywhere so urgently that a minute counts…They should know [that] the car driver cannot be relied upon to protect them.”

In an article in the Canadian Public Health Journal, Arthur Rowan, of the Ontario Department of Highways, suggested that much of the problem involved drivers who falsely believed their unsafe driving habits to be safe. “The motorist who has driven at high speed for a long period without becoming involved in any trouble cannot be easily convinced that his manner of operating constitutes a hazard since his actual experience has developed the belief that his driving is satisfactory.” Rowan also acknowledged the complex nature of the problem, adding that”“the problem of motor-vehicle accidents is one of very large proportions and one that goes far beyond the apprehension and punishment of the wild, reckless, or drunken driver. Rather it is a problem which concerns every individual and consequently requires the co-operation of the public as individuals.”

One desperate Globe and Mail editorial observed that”“fines, exhortations, and warnings have no effect on an element of drivers…Placing a skull and crossbones or some other tell-tale sign on his car might have a sobering effect.”

The Globe and Mail, December 15, 1938.

The Globe and Mail, December 15, 1938.

Toronto managed a Christmas without a traffic death in 1938, after Chief Draper announced in advance that his officers’ vacation leaves had been cancelled to ensure the maximum police presence on the streets. Newspapers credited Draper—as well as the annual pleas for safety and the decision to halt liquor sales earlier than usual on Christmas Eve—with making the streets safer that Christmas. Acknowledging the extent of that year’s safety campaign, the Globe and Mail wrote that “Credit must [also] go to the drivers themselves, who responded to all appeals for sensible conduct.” Curiously, though, while the number of injuries was fewer than in 1937, the Globe and Mail reported that the total number of traffic accidents was the same, but suggested that this was due to the bad condition of the streets in 1938.

By the start of December 1939, the city already had 125 traffic deaths on the year, 100 of whom had been pedestrians. That holiday season, the Young Men’s Section of the Board of Trade organized a “Walk Safely” campaign in an effort to reduce pedestrian fatalities. The campaign included the promotion of safety tips for pedestrians, which were published in newspaper and stencilled on signs and on downtown pavements. The “Walk Safely” campaign received the editorial support of all the major Toronto newspapers, and also the support of Premier Hepburn and Mayor Ralph Day. Premier Hepburn, in his endorsement of the campaign that December, told the Star that “all too frequently, pedestrians, preoccupied with their own affairs, have stepped from the curb into the path of an oncoming car and sustained injury or death. In congested areas, of course, it is incumbent upon motorists to exercise the utmost caution, but a responsibility also rests upon the pedestrian.” “The pedestrian has his own peculiar responsibility for safety,” ran one Globe and Mail editorial. “The car driver is in charge of a powerful vehicle which may get out of control; the person on foot has complete control over his own movements.”

Police map, using pins to show the location of traffic fatalities in 1946.  The Globe and Mail, August 2, 1946.

Police map, using pins to show the location of traffic fatalities in 1946. The Globe and Mail, August 2, 1946.

At least one Globe and Mail reader took exception to the focus of the “Walk Safely” campaign. The reader, calling himself “T.L.H.,” noted that the campaign’s six safety rules were “quite alright, although there is nothing new about them,” but objected in that the campaign put the responsibility solely with the pedestrian. “[The pedestrian] should bear in mind that, in an accident with the automobile, he will be the sufferer, not the person driving the auto. It is comparable to the recent war between Poland and Germany—Poland was not to blame but nevertheless suffered most. Nothing is indicated in the six rules to impress upon the motorist that he is the person responsible for the damage done by the automobile. Though the pedestrian is cautioned to cross at intersections only, nothing is said about the need for the autoist approaching such intersections to take care so that he will not kill pedestrians.”

The 1939 holiday season produced dramatically fewer deaths in Toronto’s streets than the year before, and the “Walk Safely” campaign was largely deemed a success.

The following April, Chief Coroner Smirle Lawson spoke to the Ontario Safety League about the high percentage of pedestrian fatalities who were seniors. Lawson suggested that drivers should “give the older pedestrian more time to cross the road,” but also made the suggestion that “elderly people should not be allowed on the streets at night unless accompanied by a younger person.” Police Inspector Dunn told the Globe and Mail that he had also suggested that older people be accompanied by younger companions, but that this had resulted in complaints. “Some younger person said they had passed the suggestion on to their parents, but it was received coldly…The older person resented assistance.”

The apparent success of the 1939 Christmas season safety campaign led to a similar campaign in 1940. A “safety flag” was flown from City Hall in mid-December, its presence serving to indicate that no pedestrians had been killed in a traffic collision during the holiday period. Posters reminding pedestrians to obey signals and cross at intersections were placed in store windows and on street corners, and automobiles were sent through the streets with signs bearing slogans advocating for safer walking. The Star reported that footprints were stencilled onto the sidewalks and streets in downtown Toronto, “and if pedestrians follow them they will cross the streets the safe way.”

The safety flag at City Hall lasted nine days. It came down on December 23 when Miss Bermeda Sanderson died in Toronto General Hospital. The Star reported that Sanderson “died of injuries received when a runaway automobile crushed her against a post on Yonge St. near Davenport Road.”

The safety sign is removed from City Hall.  The Toronto Star, December 23, 1940.

The safety sign is removed from City Hall. The Toronto Star, December 23, 1940.

In a 24-hour period between the mornings of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, there were 47 reported traffic collisions, which resulted in one person dead in the city and 18 injured; these numbers contrasted with 19 accidents over the same period the year before, with no dead an only four injured. As it had done many times before, the Toronto Star published an array of photographs showing recently wrecked cars from around southern Ontario. The Toronto fatality in 1940 was Mrs. Hinda Applebaum, of 16 Ulster St., who was killed crossing Spadina Avenue after being hit by Detective-Sergeant John Nimmo. Nimmo was reportedly arrested and charged with manslaughter.

The streets had been clear over Christmas 1940, and the traffic relatively light. With bars and liquor stores closing early and an active safety awareness campaign in place, the press was at a loss to explain the increase of traffic collisions. The Star wrote that “in spite of safety campaigns, Ontario’s 1940 toll may yet be the worst on record.” “The old spirit of recklessness and indifference, which safety workers have been trying to combat, must be the cause of this deplorable record,” wrote the Globe and Mail.

1941 was yet another catastrophic year for traffic deaths. As of December 20, 3,300 had been injured in Toronto, and 93 had been killed, the majority of them pedestrians. The annual campaign to promote traffic safety during the holiday season again proved largely ineffective, as an additional eight people died in city traffic before the end of the year, bringing the year’s total to 101. 61 of the 101 dead were pedestrians; 10 were cyclists, and the remaining 30 were either drivers or vehicle passengers. The Globe and Mail noted that 25 of the 61 pedestrians killed were seniors.

Just fours hours into 1942, Toronto had its first two traffic deaths of the new year: Mrs. Ray Young was thrown from the car she was driving when it was hit by another driver on Palmerston Avenue, and died shortly after; Arthur Earnshaw died in an ambulance on route to St. Joseph’s Hospital, after driving into the rear of another car at Lakeshore and Windermere.

Over the next few years, the total of annual traffic deaths in the city remained more than 70, a number which had seemed distressingly high to the Toronto public only a few years earlier. By this time, with the Second World War unfolding, the city newspapers were devoting less regular space to local traffic collisions, although each Christmas season featured the usual appeals for caution. In 1945, with the city traffic death total already at 88 in mid-December, the Globe and Mail reported that Hiram MacCallum, of the Board of Control, had a new idea. “The next time a life is lost and a car wrecked in Toronto,” wrote columnist Frank Tumpane, “[MacCallum] will ask permission to place the vehicle on the front lawn at City Hall.”

The Toronto Star, October 7, 1952.

The Toronto Star, October 7, 1952.

In the late 1940s, with automobiles becoming even more prevalent on Toronto streets, local newspaper coverage of traffic safety appears to have focussed on prosecuting drunk drivers and efforts to enforce pedestrian regulation. In May 1949, Toronto police announced plans to enforce a $1 fine on jaywalking pedestrians. A small column in the Globe and Mail at the end of that month noted that “[a] traffic fatality signboard will be removed from in front of City Hall” because “the sign not only was unsightly, but also was creating an unsanitary condition, because of its misuse by many citizens.”

Every December, the Toronto newspapers continued to issue safety warnings from politicians and other City and provincial officials, urging additional caution over the holidays. “No safety campaign will save life,” wrote the Globe and Mail in December 1950, “unless the drivers, the pedestrians, the parents, see the deaths and injuries as real, personal, immediate, and deadly dangers.”


Additional material from: Dimitry Anastakis, Car Nation: An Illustrated History of Canada’s Transformation Behind the Wheel (J. Lorimer & Co., 2008: Toronto); Chris Bateman, “A Brief History of the First Traffic Lights in Toronto,” blogTO (August 3, 2013); N.L. Burnett, “Death in Safety Week,” Canadian Public Health Journal (Vol. 27, No. 6; June 1936); The Globe (and Mail) (June 16, 1922; June 30, 1927; March 30, July 11, 1928; March 7, April 15, 1930; April 15, 1931; March 2, September 23, December 8, 1933; January 3, January 4, December 10, 1935; December 21, December 26, December 30, December 31, 1936; January 2, June 28, December 20, December 25, December 27, December 28, December 29, 1937; April 7, September 26, December 5, December 6, December 8, December 15, December 20, December 28, December 31, 1938; December 2, December 12, December 16, December 18, December 22, December 26, December 27, 1939; January 3, April 4, December 14, December 26, December 27, December 30, 1940; December 17, December 20, December 24, December 26, December 27, 1941; December 23, 1942; December 21, December 24, December 27, 1943; December 29, 1944; December 13, 1945; April 27, 1949; December 22, 1950); Sarah Goodyear, The Invention of Jaywalking: The Forgotten History of How the Auto Industry Won the Right of Way for Cars,” CityLab, AlanticMedia (April 24, 2012); Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (MIT Press, 2008: Cambridge); Ontario Safety League, Letter to Parents: Protect Your Children from Accidents, That They Will Not Be Crippled or Killed (1929: Toronto); The (Canadian) Public Health Journal, “Automobile Fatality,” The Public Health Journal (Vol. 17, No. 3; March 1926); Arthur H. Rowan, “The Motor-Vehicle Accident Problem,” Canadian Public Health Journal (Vol. 30, No. 1; January 1939); Arthur H. Rowan, “Prevention of Motor Traffic Accidents,” Canadian Public Health Journal (Vol. 30, No. 8; August 1939); The Toronto Star (September 29, 1934; December 20, 1934; February 9, 1935; December 26, December 28, December 31, 1936; December 27, 1937; September 26, October 16, December 14, December 21, 1938; December 2, December 12, December 16, December 19, December 29, 1939; January 4, December 20, December 23, December 26, December 28, 1940; December 26, December 27, December 29, 1941); The Toronto Telegram (May 26, 1934; December 26, December 30, 1936; December 18, December 20, December 21, December 23, December 27, December 28, 1937; December 20, 1938; December 21, 1939; December 27, 1940; December 26, 1941).


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