Very little has changed over the last 90 years when it comes to traffic safety in DC. Want proof? Take a look at this 1928 traffic report and consider how eerily similar it is to something that could come out today.


Old car image by Paul Townsend on Flickr.




Officially called the Annual Report of the Director of Traffic for the District of Columbia, the document recently surfaced on Twitter. Here are seven things it says about traffic in 1928 that are still true now:

1. Traffic was getting safer, but was still far from perfect

When the report was published, the amount of crashes were rapidly declining. There were 4,138 in 1928, which was a continuation of a downward trend from previous years and was nearly half the number that occurred in 1925 (9,378).

2. Distracted driving was a huge problem

The principle causes for crashes in which the driver was presumably at fault were reckless driving, careless driving, failure to yield, exceeding the speed limit, and defective brakes and steering equipment. Some causes listed for crashes where the pedestrian was at fault include crossing somewhere that wasn’t a crosswalk, crossing at a crosswalk against the signal, playing in the street, and being inattentive to traffic conditions.

Summarily, “it is believed that the majority of accidents are due to inattention on the part of those who drive as well of those who walk. Accidents do not happen; they are caused. It is therefore the duty of every driver and every pedestrian to exercise the greatest care in order to prevent accidents.”

3. Street design made a big difference

The streets with the most crashes in the two years before the report were 14th Street NW, Pennsylvania Avenue, M Street, and 16th Street. 14th Street, 16th Street and Massachusetts Avenue all saw precipitous drops in crashes due to the implementation of stop signs and traffic signals.

4. A lot of people died in traffic violence

There were 89 traffic fatalities in 1928, an uptick from the 78 in 1927 but about the same as the 86 in 1926. 78 were caused by people driving automobiles, eight by streetcars, two by bicycles (!), and one by motorcycle. The most common cause of fatality in crashes caused by automobiles were automobile-pedestrian crashes, with 40 deaths.

More pedestrians (eight) were killed by streetcars than those who died in automobile-automobile crashes (seven). Children under the age of 14 accounted for seven deaths, and people over 65 accounted for 13. All of the drivers involved in the fatal crashes were male.

5. Prosecution for traffic deaths was rare

In the fatal crashes, the coroner ruled 63 deaths accidental. 15 were held over for grand jury consideration, but 13 ended up being ignored. Of the two drivers tried, one hadn’t concluded when the report came out, and the other was found not guilty.

Short of criminal prosecution, a more common punishment in 1928 was revocation of driver’s licenses. 959 driving permits were revoked in 1928, more than half of which were either for driving under the influence of liquor or leaving after colliding. The report concludes that “the cancellation or suspension of operators’ permits is one of the most effective means for bringing about improvement of traffic conditions.”

6. DC wasn’t as bad as many other cities

When it came to number of traffic fatalities, Washington was one of the safer cities. Of the cities as large or with a greater population, it had the lowest fatality rate per 100,000 citizens. Its number was nearly half the fatality rate of Cincinnati, Youngstown, Ohio and Wilmington, Delaware.

Of the more than 42,000 arrests for violating traffic laws in 1928, more than 5,000 were for “parking overtime.”

7. There were endless studies

In his suggestions for the upcoming year, the Director requested $5,000 for a traffic study. “Such a survey constitutes one of the outstanding features of a traffic department, and it is necessary that this department be informed regarding the traffic flow of different streets.” He also suggested that the Traffic Act be amended to require the reporting of serious collisions to the police (which to that point was not required) and to change the penalties for the speeding, reckless and intoxicated driving away from mandatory jail time.

The 1920s may have been a different era, BUT these seven points are just as recognizable to traffic safety activists in 2015 as they were 87 years ago. It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Give the report a quick read. Is there anything else that you noticed that you found especially interesting?

Brian McEntee writes the blog Tales From the Sharrows, where he talks about his daily bicycle commute from Capitol Hill to American University or many other subjects.