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“Get After the Chauffeurs:” A 1906 Take on “Homicide by Automobile”

August 4, 2015

In his book, Fighting Traffic, Peter Norton describes the reaction that many had to cars in American cities in the early part of the 20th century:

With the sudden arrival of the automobile came a new kind of mass death. Most of the dead were city people. Most of 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 of the city people blamed the automobile. City newspaper headlines, editorials, letters, and cartoons depicted the automobile as a juggernaut.

Norton’s book spans many decades, though a large number of the editorials and cartoons he cites are from the 1920s, when the Model T, for example, would have already been in mass production for at least twelve years, their impact deeply felt in cities such as New York or

While doing a little research, I stumbled upon this piece from the July-December 1906 issue of Life Magazine. Titled, “Get After the Chauffers,” it was written about two years before Ford’s Tin Lizzie rolled off the assembly line at a time when motoring would have largely been a pursuit of the most affluent Americans. (While today the word chauffeur means any person employed to drive a motor vehicle, typically with a passenger, I’m assuming the 1906 definition was more of a catch-all for motorists in general. Readers with a deeper knowledge of etymology are free to help me out in the comments.)


The essay pulls no punches in describing what ought to happen to New York’s newest class of street user:


The article, appearing in about as mainstream an American publication as there is, expresses many of the frustrations that are today often limited to advocacy circles. It compares “homicide by automobile” to “homicide by a gun,” describes a horrific crash after a motorist “came racing down a drive in Central Park,” and bemoans the lack of legal consequences for drivers who kill:

We read every day of innocent people being killed or hurt by automobiles, but we never read that any adequate degree of inconvenience has been incurred by the chauffeur who did the killing. Nothing of any consequence seems to happen to the homicidal chauffeurs, unless they happen to be the victims of the accidents they cause.

Consider this musing over the idea of what constitutes an accident:

There will be some legitimate automobile accidents, just as there are runaway-horse accidents, but they should be few. Horses are irresponsible, and cannot be punished for running away. Chauffeurs, as a rule, are very imperfectly responsible, but they can be punished for running away and held accountable for the harm they do.

Compare the above to stories of drivers who “lost control” of their cars before killing innocent victims. In some cases, news sites such as even describe the car itself as the thing that was “out-of-control,” never mentioning a driver, as if the car was some sort of sentient animal that got spooked. Like, say, a horse.

  1. larryshaeffer permalink
    August 4, 2015 11:49 pm

    this was just before the multimedia campaign was started by the auto industry to banish pedestrians and other uses from the street and claim them for exclusive use of the motor vehicle.


  1. Before “Accident,” Deadly Driving Was “Homicide By Automobile” |

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