‘One Killed Here’: Early 20th-Century Minneapolis Traffic Safety Campaigns

The advent of automobiles and accompanying pedestrian casualties shook up Minneapolis. Over the first half of the 20th century, the city saw a series of public awareness campaigns led by municipal government and local newspapers, with slogans that evolved from “Safety Over Sorrow” and “One Killed Here” to “Traffic Victims” and “Safest Big City … But.”

The danger motor vehicles posed to people walking across the street was emphasized, but traffic safety campaigns’ tallies, admonitions, and enforcement tended also to include injuries and fatalities from crashes involving only automobiles. Indeed, the newspapers in 1915 couldn’t seem to decide whether pedestrians were inviolate or violators:

1915 newspaper spread

 

But by the 1920s, public sentiment had evidently reached heights sufficient to prompt a response from City Hall, with support for the campaign from the Minneapolis Daily Star.

 

SAFETY OR SORROW (S.O.S.)

In 1924, Minneapolis Mayor George Leach unveiled a campaign patterned on a Chicago effort he deemed successful in reducing traffic deaths: “Safety or Sorrow.”

Announced in October and launched in November, it was planned to last only two or three weeks.

Safety or Sorrow scored a front page headline in 1924

 

“Mysterious S.O.S. (‘Safety or Sorrow’) buttons, 100,000 of them, began their appearance on the streets today,” the Minneapolis Daily Star reported Nov. 7.

“Fifty-thousand Safety or Sorrow stickers were being distributed this afternoon so that every automobile and truck plying the streets should carry the message. Each noon sirens are to blow at various points, followed by buglers blowing taps for the city’s 53 traffic death victims killed so far this year. Pedestrians and motorists reaching danger corners will be confronted with signs painted on the pavements, telling of the lives lost at those corners through carelessness.”

The autumn timing of the campaign complicated that last part. “Snow again spoiled the commission’s plans to paint S.O.S. ‘safety or sorrow’ symbols, and tolls of dead or injured, on sidewalk and pavement at dangerous corners,” the next day’s Star said.

The effort, which enlisted schools, churches and a specially formed commission, wasn’t just about awareness. By the fourth day, 800 traffic violators “got the surprise of their lives,” said the Star. They were “lined up in the mayor’s reception room today, an unusual proceeding in itself, and expected the worst.” Judge Levi Hall outlined the city’s new system of police officers giving tickets instead of warnings: “First offense, white slip, $1 fine; second offense, pink slip, $2 fine. Third offense goes straight to court with major offenders.” The only exception would be for “out-of-town visitors ignorant of Minneapolis regulations.”

Those were drivers, but S.O.S.’s penalties were aimed at pedestrians as well. The Star editorialized that “the really fatal factors are the jay-walking and the illegal parking.” Ticketing of pedestrians was put off until after the first week of the campaign had run its course. A 100-float S.O.S. parade marked the midpoint of the two-week effort. At the end, Police Chief Frank W. Brunskill announced new rules, including “abolition of the rule which allowed right-hand turns against the semaphore,” the Star said.

S.O.S. ended with two days free of any traffic injuries in the city. The final group of 200 violators to be lectured in the mayor’s reception room also were made to watch a movie titled, “Play Safe.”

 

ONE KILLED HERE

And the S.O.S. commission set a followup for the following year, including: “Extending of the painted ‘SOS’ signs on busy traffic streets, sidewalks and other places throughout the city. Erection of monument markers at every corner where a person is killed in traffic, the counting of death to start now. The markers will read, ‘One Killed Here,’ with the SUS symbol and possibly the date. They will go up while the death is fresh in neighborhood minds, and will stay up.”

Minneapolis Mayor George Leach and school kids engaged in safety program, 1925. Source: Minnesota Historical Society

 

In fact, the counting of death started in January 1925, with the first 15-by-24 inch sign going up at Third Street and 12th Avenue N., where Tony Nataro, 5, was run down in the first such fatality of the year.

By the end of February, there were six “One Killed Here” signs, including at Nicollet Avenue and 16th Street; Hennepin Avenue and 8th Street; University and 19th aves. SE; and 34th Avenue and 38th Street.

It was again a tactic Minneapolis borrowed from, or, perhaps in this case, shared with Chicago, where intersections likewise marked confused some visitors who thought they referred to gang violence.

Eventually, the signs wore out their welcome. In 1928, Olaf H. Foss filed a protest with the city council against the “One Killed Here” on Nicollet Avenue. The council’s Street Traffic Committee recommended that police “remove this and other signs of similar nature.”

 

TRAFFIC VICTIMS

Throughout the 1930s, the Minneapolis Tribune ran, at least weekly, a feature called “Traffic Victims.” From July 20, 1931 to September 10, 1940, the listing of people injured or killed in crashes on Minneapolis streets appeared, sometimes on the front page, sometimes further back with the weather map and radio schedule.

Each time a box at the top listed the total killed on city streets in the previous two or three years, along with the number killed so far in the current year compared with the number killed to that date the year before. Then below were listed the people injured or killed over the last week or days, in crashes involving “machines,” bicycles, and pedestrians. In later years, the admonition “Speed Limit 30 Miles!” was added at the top of the column.

Sept. 7, 1940 Minneapolis Tribune

 

SAFEST BIG CITY … BUT

The Minneapolis Tribune briefly revived a “Traffic Victims”-like feature in 1950. Apparently playing off a claim that Minneapolis was the United States’ safest big city, the tagline read: “Safest Big City … But,” with the usual listing of injuries and fatalities in traffic providing the rest of the thought.

The Minneapolis Tribune ran a short-lived column in 1950

 

But for whatever reason — A different postwar mood? A shift in pedestrian/driver demographics? — this time the regular listing was short-lived, appearing only eight times. The public’s taste for public-awareness campaigns around safety on the streets had evidently dissipated, for the time being.

***

For the record, here are the annual death counts in Minneapolis traffic, according to “Traffic Victims”:

1930: 94

1931: 89

1932: 72

1933: 88

1934: 86

1935: 95

1936: 87

1937: 62

1938: 77

1939: 70

 

 

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2 Responses to ‘One Killed Here’: Early 20th-Century Minneapolis Traffic Safety Campaigns

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke August 13, 2018 at 10:10 am #

    Thanks for digging into this, Chris. I have always been curious about this period in our history.

  2. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell August 13, 2018 at 10:24 am #

    Thanks for this. Fortunately overall fatalities are down, at least based on miles travelled, but they’re not down by much and they’re not down nearly as much as elsewhere like Europe and Asia. I wonder how much of the reduction is due to safer automobiles and how much is safer street design? I’d guess it’s largely the former.

    Has the population become callous to the number of deaths? Simply the cost of saving a few seconds or minutes getting to wherever we’re going?

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