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  • Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City
  • Peter C. Baldwin
Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. By Peter D. Norton. Cambridge: MIT. 2008.

Peter Norton's Fighting Traffic examines how automotive interests in the 1920s redirected public policy concerning streets. It devotes meticulous attention to the public [End Page 197] safety crisis created by traffic, and to the rhetorical and political strategies used to resolve this crisis on behalf of "organized motordom."

The motor age dawns later in Norton's account than in some previous studies. The leading work on early urban motoring, Clay McShane's Down the Asphalt Path (1994), described a changing public perception of streets in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. "By 1910, most motorists had conceded urban crosswalks to pedestrians and most adult pedestrians had conceded the middle of the block to cars."(187)

Not so fast, Norton seems to caution us: the automobile's dominance was far from complete. "… Before 1920 American pedestrians crossed streets wherever they wished, walked in them, and let their children play in them." (70) But the rising numbers of vehicles struck and killed thousands of pedestrians, provoking outrage. Police, judges and journalists initially blamed motorists and tried to force them to conform to nineteenth-century street customs. Traffic deaths continued and congestion worsened.

By 1923, automotive interests feared the situation was reaching a crisis. Local safety councils were giving cars a bad name by blaming speeders for killing children. Hostility to speed was so intense that Cincinnatians voted on whether to make motorists install devices that would shut off their engines at 25 m.p.h. Transit companies' publicity portrayed automobiles as the cause of congestion and trolleys as the more efficient solution. As congestion worsened, automobile manufacturers worried that the urban market might be getting saturated.

The events of 1924 marked a turning point. U.S. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover formed a National Conference on Street and Highway Safety, dominated by automobile interests, that drafted an influential model traffic ordinance. The model ordinance "over-turned pedestrians' ancient legal supremacy in the streets," and required them to cross only at crosswalks or at least yield to traffic when they crossed elsewhere. (192) Organized motordom demanded more street "floor space" to serve more cars.

Automotive propaganda now presented motoring as an individual liberty, not to be suppressed in the name of efficiency. It blamed "reckless pedestrians" for their own deaths. Finally, under President Hoover, the government agreed that the way to fight traffic accidents was to build safer highways.

Most of the book consists of topical chapters considering different social groups' perspectives on street use. Norton does a fine job of tracing the philosophical underpinnings of each perspective. Perhaps the best chapter is a richly detailed examination of the public response to traffic fatalities.

The emphasis on Hoover's conference appears exaggerated. The traffic ordinance does not seem radically different from previous attempts at controlling pedestrians, and its effect is questionable.

The book is based on copious research, but its depth comes at the expense of breadth. We learn a lot about the 1920s and little about the historical background. Norton hesitates to explain how his work modifies previous scholars' findings. By virtually ignoring the earlier redefinition of street space described by McShane, he misses an opportunity to make a greater mark on the literature. It will be up to other scholars to decide how to synthesize these two interpretations of the dawn of the motor age. [End Page 198]

Peter C. Baldwin
University of Connecticut