The very first gasoline-powered vehicle driven on the streets of Detroit was built by engineer Charles Brady King in 1896. It went as fast as 20 mph, which was described in the newspaper as "tearing along the street at a lively rate, dodging people and teams."
The transition from the horse age to the motorized age would prove to be very dangerous. At first speeding vehicles were not a big problem, with only a few of them on Detroit streets, but the situation grew serious quickly.
As early as 1908, auto accidents in Detroit were recognized as a menacing problem: In two months that summer, 31 people were killed in car crashes and so many were injured it went unrecorded.
Soon thousands of cars jammed Detroit streets, driven by inexperienced drivers. Dealerships were instructed to provide five driving lessons to each new car owner. The city would take the lead to transform the streets and the minds of people from the age of horses to the new, fast-paced age of motor vehicles, but it was a battle that took decades to win.
No Rules- A Free-for-All
In the first decade of the 20th century there were no stop signs, warning signs, traffic lights, traffic cops, driver's education, lane lines, street lighting, brake lights, driver's licenses or posted speed limits. Our current method of making a left turn was not known, and drinking-and-driving was not considered a serious crime.
There was little understanding of speed. Also, early vehicles were terrifyingly loud for horses and their owners, compounding the problem as their numbers grew quickly. Statistics kept by the Automobile Club of America recorded that in 1909 there were 200,000 motorized vehicles in the U.S. Just seven years later, in 1916, there were 2.25 million.
In 1917, Detroit and its suburbs had 65,000 cars on the road, resulting in 7,171 accidents and 168 fatalities. Three-fourths of the victims were pedestrians.
Detroit differed from New York City and the east coast, where most automobiles were driven by uniformed chauffeurs hired by the wealthy. In Detroit everyone was driving.
One family was driven around Detroit by their 11-year-old son. It was common for light truck delivery wagons to be driven by 14-year-old boys.
Streetcars, which ran up the center of the streets, were becoming the most dangerous place in the city for pedestrians. Disembarking streetcar riders had to run a gauntlet of racing cars, trucks, motorcycles and horse-drawn buggies to cross the street safely.
The most appalling tragedies were the number of children struck and killed by autos as they played in the street. In the 1920s, 60% of automobile fatalities nationwide were children under age 9.
The main cause of motor vehicle accidents was seen as excessive speeding. Until 1909 there was no regulation of street traffic in Detroit. The courts and police decided to address the problem with a simple approach: Set the speed limit to match the pace of horse-drawn wagons, such as 5 mph. Make the streets as slow and safe as they were before cars.
After all, the automobile in the 1910s was not yet considered an essential mode of transportation, and it was their speeding that confused pedestrians, frightened horses and tore up the roadways. But the "normal" speed from the horse age was so slow that automobile owners had difficulty keeping their cars from stalling out.
If drivers broke the law, the punishment was severe, with heavy fines, jail sentences, and charges of manslaughter and murder when pedestrians were hit and killed. In one afternoon in 1911 police hauled in 450 people on speeding charges.
However, the weakness of this strategy became clear as traffic got "thicker and thicker" as it was described. The initial police effort was called the Broadway Squad, copying a program started in New York City. Nine older policemen were assigned to help people, typically elderly, cross the now-treacherous downtown intersections. This was abolished and replaced with the Traffic Squad- one sergeant and 12 officers who rotated in four-man shifts. They devised a signaling method to unravel traffic "tangles" and "blockades," both terms from the horse and buggy days-the upraised hand was the signal to stop, and the swinging hand across the body the signal to start.
By 1916, one-fourth of the entire Detroit police force- 250 officers- was now used for managing traffic. On May 25, 1920, Detroit was second in the nation after New York to start a traffic court. It was announced the same day that the 17th person had been killed in the first 24 days of May. Soon the police admitted publicly they could not keep up with traffic and could not afford to add more men to street safety. The city was losing the war against reckless driving.
Accidents and Safety Parades
After World War I, as accidents continued to soar, drivers were being labeled in newspapers as "remorseless murderers," their danger to public safety likened to an epidemic disease. In Detroit and other cities angry mobs were dragging reckless drivers out of cars.
The Detroit Safety Council in 1919 had bells on fire stations, churches, schools and City Hall ring twice a day in memory of the street auto fatalities.
Safety parades, started in the 1920s, became an emotional relief valve for public loss. The busiest downtown Detroit intersections were labeled with giant "A," "B" or "C" cards to remind people to "Always Be Careful." Thousands watched as hulking wrecks of cars were towed down Woodward with placards that read "He tried to make 90!" or "Follow this one to the cemetery."
Detroit's Better Ideas
In addition to the dangers drivers were creating, nuisance issues of parking and blocked streets were also a concern in Detroit. Multi-storied commercial buildings had no parking spaces and there were no laws for parking- people simply stopped their cars in front of a building and left them for hours.
By 1915, the automobile had become an essential method of transportation in Detroit, so it was now impractical to tell people to drive at 5 mph. The city also was staking a claim as the center of the motor vehicle industry; therefore, something had to be done about the gruesome daily publicity and the public's fear and anger at the automobile.
In some cities the courts had begun to consider implementing engine-mounted governors to limit a vehicle's speed. And as long as pedestrian deaths were attributed solely to drivers, the automobile industry had a huge public relations problem. In Detroit, one of their own stepped up to find solutions- former Ford Motor Co. executive, James Couzens.
First, he insisted that adult pedestrians were just as guilty as drivers of causing accidents through careless street crossing and jaywalking. He insisted that pedestrians cross at designated corners. The second approach was to try new ideas and technologies, such as stop signs, lane markings, one-way streets and traffic signals.
Very basics of driving were not taught nor understood, such as the left turn. Many accidents and pedestrian casualties were caused by "corner cutters" - drivers who did not make a left turn by driving through an intersection and then turning left into the far, perpendicular lane as we do today. Corner cutters made quick left turns the same way we make right turns, hitting unsuspecting pedestrians and other cars. Detroit police implemented "silent policemen"- pylons emblazoned with a sign that read "Stay Right" to force drivers into a proper left turn.
More Detroit “Firsts”
Most irritating were drivers who parked wherever expedient, which frequently meant in intersections or in front of fire hydrants. Detroit police drew national attention for using tennis court line marking equipment to establish "crossing zones," "safety zones" and "no parking" areas. The first center line on a U.S. highway appeared in Michigan in 1911.
The first traffic lights, at the time called Street Semaphores, were invented and developed in Detroit. At first they had to be manually switched, but in the 1920s the city gradually installed automatic electric lights.
Also in 1911, Detroit claimed to be the first city to successfully experiment with one-way streets. Less successful was the idea of dedicating certain streets to one type of vehicle, mostly delivery trucks or taxi cabs.
The first U.S. stop sign was used in Detroit in 1915, and the first traffic lights, at the time called Street Semaphores, were invented and developed in Detroit. Their success would be known nationally as "the Detroit Plan." The original design was a green metal circle with green light and a red metal star with red light. A policeman stood on a crow's nest platform above the street and blasted a whistle for ten seconds before manually changing the signal from red to green.
The first electronic automated traffic light, was developed in Detroit and set up at John R. and East Grand Boulevard in 1922. For the first time an amber light was added to show a signal was about to change, accompanied by a clanging bell. It cost one-tenth of the price of the old manned crow's nest system.
Illegal parking continued to be a persistent problem. Couzens ordered illegally parked cars towed for the first time. Within six months the new Detroit Towing Squad hauled 10,737 cars to a vacant lot.
By the mid-1920s a national, uniform approach to street and highway safety was formed under the direction of U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Automobile manufacturers began to improve reliability and adopt safety features such as turn signals, brake lights, safety glass and standard head lamps. States required drivers to take tests and to be licensed. In the 1930s driver's education began to be required.
The days of free-for-all driving were over.