Deathtraps of Yore

Staff Blog

Staff Blog | May 31, 2012

The other day our friends at Wait Wait! sent over a link to some archival photos of automobile accidents. They were all taken in Boston, so they hit close to home -- literally! 

A wreck in Our Fair City, 1922. (Flickr image by Boston Public Library)Leslie Jones, staff photographer for the Boston Herald from 1917 to 1956, photographed automobile accidents, and captured what life was like back in the days when getting in a car meant really putting your life at risk.

We’re talking back before the very basic safety features were implemented in car design, like: safety glass, seatbelts, rear-view mirrors, headrests and padded dashboards.

The captions for these photos are pretty grim. “Car stolen by kids crashes into lawyer's car, killing him.” “Crazy kids hits stone wall and lamp pole, one dying, one badly hurt.” “Blue Hill Ave. One killed two dying.” 

"One killed in Brighton." (Flickr image by Boston Public Library)In the U.S., more people died in car crashes in 1934 than in 2010 (34,240 and 32,885, respectively). This despite the fact that as a country we drove something like thirteen times more road miles in 2010 than in ‘34 and there are boatloads more cars on the road today.   

This led me down a Wikipedia wormhole on the history of automobile safety. Why were so many people dying in car accidents? (See also: most dangerous car interiors.)

Well, for one, it seems like day-to-day life was more dangerous in general. Leslie himself became a professional photographer after losing two fingers in a factory accident. He went on to cover home and factory explosions, including the aftermath of the Boston Molasses Disaster.

But why no safety features in cars? Seat belts, for instance. Hindsight is 20/20, but get this guys: strap yourself to the car, and you won't get flung out into the street and lose half or more of your brain cells! The seatbelt was first invented in 1885, but it wasn’t until 1958 that they came standard on any car -- the Saab GT750

Life and death before seatbelts. (Flickr image by Boston Public Library)But catch on we did, thankfully. This video says it all: The 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air vs. 2009 Chevrolet Malibu crash test.

I definitely have a newfound respect for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety after watching this. It’s amazing how much cars have improved in 50 years. 

Let’s just say I’m glad I’ve spent time in cars since the 1980s and not the 1880s.

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