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Chicago’s Bloody, Morbid Traffic History

If you think driving is dangerous in Chicago these days, you should see the statistics from the 1930s, when the roads were bloody and the press coverage was morbid.

While researching something completely different, not intending to read anymore about traffic horrors, I came across this headline from the Trib on June 6, 1934:

(That weird verb construction—using a pseudo-imperative mood in order to eliminate the need for a sentence subject—was something the Tribune did for a long time, as Eric Zorn notes. I can’t help but wonder if this is why schizophrenics used to get messages from the newspaper. At the very least, it would have driven me up the wall to read a paper every day that read like it was telling me what to do.)

14 traffic fatalities in two days seemed like a lot, so I started poking around. It turns out Chicago was an extremely dangerous place to walk or drive in the 1920s and 30s. The Tribune, in a morbid bit of data-driven journalism, kept a running tally of deaths from guns, cars, and moonshine in its “Hands of Death” feature:

Hands of Death

That was published February 12, 1924, so 44 auto fatalities might seem like a slow pace. But then the weather warmed up; in the next two months, give or take, another 100 died. 687 people died by the end of that year, and the hands of death spun faster in 1925:

In 2009, Illinois registered seven traffic deaths per capita. In Cook County in 1931, after traffic deaths had passed 1,000 a year, the rate was 32.8; in the collar counties, 53.75.

By 1935, traffic fatalities were on the decline again, though the Trib’s rhetoric hadn’t eased:

The Trib kept up “The Massacre” through 1940, as auto deaths declined and injuries rose:

In 2010, there were 236 auto fatalities in Cook County, but 38,887 injuries. I knew auto safety vastly improved over the 20th century, as suggested by the changing ratio of deaths to injuries. What I didn’t realize was how bloody—and morbid—it used to be.


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