A Criminal in Every Family


I OWN and operate an inexpensive car which my wife and I use in our holiday rounds. Living as I do in a city whose parking space is scarce and whose streets are narrow, I prefer to walk or take the subway to my office. Lately I have become increasingly aware of the difference in my attitude when I am at the wheel and when I am on foot. To reach my office I must walk ten blocks and pass three policed crossings. Naturally I am resentful when I find the traffic lights against me, and as the long line of commuting cars streams by me I soon lose patience. I crowd the curb and at the least opening I make a dash for the opposite bank. It always seems to me that the motorists have the best of it. When at last the pedestrian signal is given, should a car turn in upon us from a side street I not only refuse to hurry but glare angrily at the driver, muttering, ‘D’you think you own the street?’ If the intruder is called back by the officer I am pleased. For I am very jealous of my rights as a pedestrian.

But it is an entirely different matter when I am at the wheel. I have, of course, just as little patience with the traffic signals. I expect them to be against me, and when they are I simply cannot understand how the pedestrians can be so slow. ’Oh, hurry up, Sleeping Sickness!’ I growl, and if later I should dodge a jaywalker, ’Did you see that fool?’ I ask my wife. ‘ Why can’t they stay where they belong!’ I forget that it is their right to walk the streets (without a license); I forget that it is my privilege — not my right — to motor. Instead, T insist on the right of way, and devil take the hindmost! Perhaps this attitude explains why on these very streets five out of six accidents are caused by motorists.

More irritating than the pedestrian is the rivalry that soon develops between me anti the cars going in the same direction. It irritates me that Fords — always quick starters — can ‘pick up’ sooner than my car, and I overhaul them later with satisfaction. I know my car: I know that its best gait is between twenty-five and thirtythree miles an hour, and rarely do I push it faster. But there is in me some pride that protests against taking the dust from cars of my own class or inferiors — that is, those of cheaper makes. I pull over for a Pierce or a Packard without demur. ‘You can’t keep up with those fellows,’ I explain to my wife or myself. But if in my reflector I see the approach of a smaller car I drop all conversation and get down to business. My foot goes down on the accelerator and I am none too ready to take to the side. You may be sure I give way grudgingly to Fords and Chevrolets and for a few miles thereafter I still have hopes of catching them. Should they by any chance be pulled up at the roadside for repairs, it is to smile. ‘That’s what comes when you push a light car,’ I think. I notice this same sense of rivalry when I in turn overhaul the fellow ahead of me. At the sound of my klaxon his first reaction is to swerve to the right (I have an expensive horn), his second is to ‘step on the gas.’ Perhaps by the time I have drawn level with him he has increased his speed by five miles. Then we rush along like two angry chariot drivers, until with a final burst of speed I cut. in ahead just in time to avoid the worried driver approaching in the opposite direction. You can see this taking place on any popular highway and if you are a motorist you will know what a superior sensation it is to pass another car. Without doubt it is human nature; without doubt it is dangerous driving.

But just as sharp as rivalry is the spur of time. Though I may start with the most placid of intentions, it is not long before I am comparing my clock and speedometer and calculating my mileage. I drive at what many would consider a slow pace (for two years I drove an ambulance over the most painful roads in France; the experience has slowed me up considerably); I seldom exceed thirty-five miles an hour, and consequently on my long runs seldom average above thirty. But as one of my friends says, ‘It’s impossible to make good mileage and drive like a gentleman.’ I say it is impossible to average thirty miles an hour without constant infractions of the law. Clear of your first suburbs, your carelessness sets in. At first you disregard the white lines painted on the curves; then perhaps you pass a truck on the upgrade and below the crest of a hill. You go through a hamlet of only a dozen houses, and because it is so small you don’t slacken — and miss a drowsy dog by the hairs of his tail. On the mad Saturday rush to the beach I have seen cars sweep by a discharging trolley car or even around its blind side —and ‘get away with it.’ And because you can ‘get away with it’ you come to think that it is safe. On goes the mad rush. ‘If I can keep up a steady thirty-five we’ll make it by lunch.’

So busy are we saving time that in an emergency we have almost no time to save ourselves. We have time for only the scantiest attention to side roads, and even less than that for judging what the other fellow might do. A car coming in at a crossroads must give way. ’I had the right of way!’ I explained heatedly to my passenger after one screeching dodge. ‘Yes,’he said frankly, ‘the right of way to Hell.’ But we press on. ’Faster! Faster!’ cries Time, the Red Queen, and like Alice we obey. Overhauling a car on a closed curve (fortunately no one coming); railing at a hoggish truck or a woman in a Ford who prefers the left to the right. Faster! Faster! Until, though a mild citizen, I am shouting at a stubborn bus or the Swiss Family Robinsky in eye shades and a fifthhand Buick. Faster! Faster! Up hill and down, through town and country, until at last I arrive, having ‘saved’ perhaps fifteen minutes —and lost my temper, nerve, and appetite. No wonder accidents are doubled in the summer months.

A further problem has developed with the great growth of suburbs. From distances up to twenty-five miles people motor to their work. Naturally at the day’s end there comes a rush for home. Now on congested roads the majority of us are well-behaved: we run along in obedient lines, swallowing each other’s gasoline fumes, and holding out our hands at every stop. But the minority we always have with us. They cut in front of us at the barest pretext, form a triple line at every hold-up, disregard electric signals, smash rules and fenders at will. They are a physical menace, and they distract the attention of the careful drivers. Personally, they make me boiling mad. Yet if I try to keep my place and hold them back where they belong I am instantly forced into the very errors I have been cursing. Because of this contemptuous minority and because there are more pedestrians and motors on the roads than at any other time, accidents in every urban district reach their high point between the ‘Death Hours’ of 5 and 6 P.M.


Such, then, are the common failings — jaywalking, disregard for the pedestrian, motor rivalry, the race against time, and contemptuous commuting. For what are they responsible?

In 1926 they were responsible for about 23,000 deaths.

It is estimated that for the past three years in the United States one car in every thousand registrations was responsible for a fatal accident, one car in every twenty for an injury. The causes of these accidents were many, but the most common of them I shall quote from the figures supplied me by the Motor Registrar of my state. There are in round numbers 700,000 licensed drivers in my state. In 1926 this grand army was responsible for 27,436 recorded accidents (Heaven knows how many were unrecorded), injuring 25,351 and killing 705. Respectable casualties for any civil war. With the small number of inspectors at his disposal the Registrar was only able to analyze the more serious of these accidents, which have been traced officially to one or more of the following causes: —

Brakes defective 92
Confused operator 167
Cutting in ahead 129
Inattention 1024
Intoxicated operator 103
Obstructed view 123
Operator had been drinking 127
Skidding 123
Inexperience 117
Too close to other vehicles 107
Too fast for conditions 1667
Wrong side of the road 323
Violating right-of-way law 173
Child darting in front 406
Pedestrian running across street 314
Pedestrian stepping from sidewalk 190
Pedestrian from front or back of vehicle 106
Pedestrian walking along road 237

Observe that only one charge can be in any way attributed to the machine; observe the carelessness (‘Inattention’), the predilection for speeding, and the disregard for what the pedestrian may do. Fifteen years ago it was claimed that the high rate of fatalities was largely due to the unfamiliarity with motors. Our fathers could drive a tandem but not a Stanley Steamer. But to-day the majority of motorists killed are between the ages of sixteen and thirty-five, the majority of pedestrians between one and thirty-five — people, in other words, who have practically grown up with motors. Clearly there is need for further discipline, not so much for past offenders (it is not easy to forget a serious accident) as for those who are used to cars and who, thus far, have ‘gotten away with it.’

Some of this discipline needs to come from the police; of that I shall speak later. But more of it ought to come from public opinion, which today is almost conscienceless in the matter, despite the efforts of editorial writers and of novelists and playwrights who, prophetically, it seems to me, have adopted the motor accident as the most popular means of‘taking off’ their unnecessary characters. But neither in fiction nor in real life can we be brought to take the peril seriously.

For instance. My brother and I have each been arrested once. My father has been arrested twice — for speeding. Now this, I submit, is not an extraordinary record for an American family whose four older members have been driving steadily over a period of eight years. We were responsible for no injuries; we received the state’s reprimand, paid our fines, and there the matter dropped. But I am not sure that the matter would have dropped so quickly if we had received the same number of convictions, say, for bootlegging or petty larceny. Nor am I sure that we learned our lesson.

Ours, I repeat, is an average record. I know of a family every member of which has been involved in a serious accident. I have a schoolmate who recently ran down and killed an old lady who was not so spry at the crossings as she ought to have been. I have an uncle who drove his car into a collision which destroyed both machines and killed one of the occupants. A younger relative bowled over a Ford containing a man and wife before he was old enough to have a license. I am further confident that three out of four motorists who read this have been in an accident — minor or major — and that the same proportion know within their acquaintance of at least one person who has been mortally injured. Yet our attitude toward these things is heedless when it is not cynical. ‘I was pulled in yesterday for speeding,’you’ll hear a man say. ‘How fast were you going?' asks his companion. ‘Oh, about forty-eight.’ ‘How much did he get you for?’ ‘Twenty dollars.’ And they laugh it off. Summonses for speeding — last year, remember, speeding was a direct cause of 1667 accidents in my state alone — summonses for speeding are like notches in our forefathers’ rifles, a mark of bravado. And it is an exceptional family whose motorists—or whose chauffeur — have not answered to this or an equivalent charge at least once. A criminal in every family.

Still we speed on, confident that our brakes will hold, that the other fellow will slow down, that our insurance will meet any ordinary emergency — confident that we can ‘get away with it.’


How are we to be brought to our senses? In two ways, I think. First, by aroused public opinion, and secondly, by the increased severity and justice of the police supervision. To open the public’s eyes we must have men who are at once martinets and skilled propagandists. As state officials in charge of motor vehicles they must undertake to ‘popularize’ the idea of safety and to drub it into those who won’t listen. The Registrar of my state has some forcible ideas on the subject. Each Monday he has printed in local newspapers in a black-bordered box the list of the motor victims of the preceding week. This is beginning to make an impression. Then, as the seasons dictate, he sends his inspectors out on the roads, now to inspect brakes, now headlights, now to fine and punish those who are driving without licenses. And I have noticed that the press helps him swing his ‘big stick’ by running editorials and articles calculated to caution those who will read before they run. These two forces in collaboration made such a campaign against driving while under the influence of liquor that the subject became a matter of general conversation and people began to think twice about cocktails if there was motoring to be done afterward. It meant the suspension of your license if you were caught. Yet, despite the warning, the 1926 statistics report that 230 drunken drivers took a toll of 249 injuries and 46 deaths; and that. 4863 drivers lost their licenses for ‘operating under the influence of liquor.’

Our Registrar has found that it pays to remove serious offenders from the roads. In the past four years he has suspended or revoked sixty thousand licenses. Last year he revoked over eighteen thousand and this year he estimates that the total will be close to twenty-four thousand. This is a striking number when it is remembered that many culprits — through personal or political influence — were able to have their names scratched off the police reports. By this means in 1926 he punished more drivers in our single state than were similarly punished in all the rest of the states put together. What is more, he has proved that the punishment does teach its lesson. There are very few ‘repeaters.’ And fatalities are proportionately decreasing.

This rigor is of course exceptional: it is more than balanced by the laxity in other parts of our country. It is almost unbelievable that to-day only sixteen states out of the forty-eight require licenses. The remainder, particularly those in the South and Middle West, issue number plates without even a perfunctory driving test. The farmers, it is said, have not time to drive their flivvers; the job is left to their children, many of whom are under registration age. Hence anyone, presumably, with ‘a piece of tin’ and some gasoline can make the street hideous. Now, obviously the agency of a strict registration examination enables the state to cut off potential offenders at the very outset. If the precaution did not recommend itself on the grounds of safety, it is to be expected that it might appeal to officials as a source of legitimate revenue.

What chance, then, has a local official with such conditions as these existing, perhaps, across the next border? He can have no more than a temporary effect so long as there is no conformity the country over. The widening of streets and the necessity of diverting transient traffic from congested districts need hardly be dwelt on here. These improvements have been or will be put into effect by every progressive community. But other reforms are as badly needed. I think, for instance, that wherever possible local regulations should give way to a nationally adopted speed limit for town and country driving. The signs that still greet our entrance to some towns — ‘Speed Limit 15 Miles an Hour; Strictly Enforced’ — are as antiquated as the Blue Laws. Not one car in two hundred accepts that ruling literally. It would hold up traffic if it did. But here and there the legend still persists. One highway I have in mind is controlled by electric signals for a threemile passage through suburbs. The street, which is very wide, is divided by a trolley line thus establishing oneway traffic on either side. With the road open before one and the side streets patrolled by the signals, one can drive safely up to twenty-five miles an hour — and one usually does. Yet for so doing a friend of mine was arrested this summer and, when he protested, was told angrily that the limit was fifteen! This is archaic. Surely twentyfive miles an hour is a reasonable speed for residential driving; it is so accepted by common consent and should be respected by regulation. Were there a clearer definition of speed limits, not subject to local manipulation, the motorist’s — and the policeman’s — lot would be a happier one.

To illustrate the form that local manipulation can sometimes take, I wish to cite the incident of my own arrest. It occurred in 1922 in a North Atlantic state at whose seashore my family were spending the summer. On a Sunday morning as I was placidly driving my mother and sister home from church I had occasion to pass a truck. Just ahead of me the road curved, but as it was plainly visible between the gaps of the widely spaced trees I had no hesitancy in passing, especially since the truck was not running fast. Hardly had I passed when a motorcyclist emerged from a concealed lane and came roaring up.

‘Pull over! Pull over, you!’

I did so. ‘What’s the matter? I was only going twenty-five.’

’I know you were. But you were passing on a closed curve. Could n’t see a hundred and fifty yards ahead of you.’

Argument was futile, and the short of it was that I appeared in the local court the following morning and was fined $36 — $25, which was the minimum fine in that state (and could n’t be repealed), plus $11 ‘costs.’ There were ten other victims besides myself, and for a variety of, for the most part, perfunctory offenses they were each compelled to pay $36. For pure extortion the court scene was a page from Dickens.

Like many of the others, I honestly believe that I was innocent. I did pass on a curve, but that it was closed or open depends on whether you take the policeman’s word or mine. That the road inspector did not consider it dangerous was attested by the absence of those signs which guarded the road on other curves. I protested my case to one of the older residents. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I heard they’ve been using that trap. Well, you see, the highway has to be repaired, and they ’re making you fellows pay your share.’ To-day I drive slowly over that particular stretch that I may get my full money’s worth.

But seriously, motor traps and perfunctory charges, whether for this or a more honest purpose, only serve to increase the natural antagonism between the driver and the police. Like undergraduates, we post rear guards ‘to keep an eye out for cops,’ and if we’re in a good position we’ll ‘step on the gas’ at the first sound of the commanding whistle. So there develops a feud in which we disregard the law so long as we are out of sight of khakicoats.

I submit that a national speed limit should be established on our main highways. It should vary for three zones: the slowest for the passage through business districts, a higher speed for the suburbs and thinly settled regions, and the maximum for the open country. Were signs posted announcing our entrance into each zone, and were the residential districts with their numerous cross streets controlled by the red, yellow, anti green flash signals, we should conform far more than we do to the ever-varying conditions of to-day — and there would be fewer arrests. In the cities, for years to come, traffic will be under the eyes of the police. In the open country, where we answer to our own responsibility, there are fewer cars and, as a result, relatively few accidents. It is in the middle districts that trouble is found. I can imagine it as ideal when, in a medium-size suburb or village, a single policeman can sit in his pulpit and by electric signals control the north and south and east and west traffic in due proportion on streets far out of range of his personal vision. But it will call for more conscientious conformity than ever exists to-day. And for the heedless I can imagine maximum fines, fines that really ‘hurt,’ and certain loss of license for a serious offense. To bring this Utopia nearer I urge upon myself — and all others who share to any extent my feelings — more tolerance for pedestrians, less rivalry with the man ahead, and whenever possible a disregard for that fatal habit of ‘saving time.’ And upon our thirtytwo backward states I urge some serious sense of responsibility for a scourge comparable — without exaggeration — to the Black Death. It almost looks as if we should have to call for Mr. Hoover again.

I finished writing this on a Sunday night. On my way to the office the following morning I picked up my newspaper at the usual stand and glanced at the headlines. This was the first to catch my eye: —


The W — police are seeking the motorist who ran down William Connors, 8-year-old W — boy, at Bacon and School streets that city yesterday afternoon, stopped his car, picked the boy up, and after driving with the lad an eighth of a mile along Bacon street, laid him in a field back of a factory building.

Fortunately pedestrians saw the act and the boy was removed to the W — Hospital, where it is feared he has a fractured skull. His name is on the danger list. The boy lives with his grandmother at 115 Pond street.

When I reached my office I turned back through my sheaf of state statistics supplied me by the Motor Registrar. Here was what I wanted. In 1926, I read, three hundred and sixtyone drivers ran away unidentified — after such accidents as the above. A man who will do that sort of thing is worth a horsewhipping, and then a long ‘time’ to think it over. But what about the society that tolerates him?