Eyes on the Street, 83 Years Ago: The Brooklyn Death-O-Meter

death-o-meter

This is how our forebears raised awareness about the dangers of speeding and reckless driving, and it seemed appropriate to share while the Stop Speeding Summit is going on today. The Death-O-Meter, installed by the Brooklyn Safety Council at Grand Army Plaza in 1927, tracked serious injuries and fatalities in Brooklyn and put the information on display for everyone to see.

I think what’s jarring about this picture is the willingness to publicly tell drivers, without beating around the bush, that their actions behind the wheel have potentially fatal consequences. The Death-O-Meter assigned agency to motorists in a way that you rarely see in the modern press, police statements, or the courts.

I haven’t been able to pin down when the Death-O-Meter went away, or when the Brooklyn Safety Council disbanded, but I can point you to the definitive history of safety councils (which were formed in just about every U.S. city in the early part of the last century) and the social upheavals that accompanied the dawn of mass motoring in America. Go get a copy of Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic. If you’re reading this post, I guarantee you will find it illuminating and deeply engrossing. And you’ll never look at this Dodge Challenger ad quite the same way again.

Hat tip to reader Daniel Bowman Simon for the Death-O-Meter pic.

  • Miriam

    Wow!!

    What does our generation do? We have signs on queens boulevard warning pedestrians to be cautious because “a pedestrian died here”.

  • Danny G

    Miriam,

    As much as I want it to be a simple generational divide, I’m not sure it entirely is. The environment in which you are raised informs the decisions you make as to car/transit/bike/sneaker dependency. Though it is cute and snarky to say that the greatest generation was not-so-great at urban planning 🙂

  • Great find!

  • Glenn

    While these signs seem aimed at motorists, why is is not also aimed at over-eager pedestrians crossing against the signal or running across traffic? They too should “slow up” and answer the question “what’s your hurry?” since they might get hurt too.

    These types of signs are great because they are holding a community as a whole accountable for keeping the number low. This is the type of civic expression of the goals a neighborhood sets for itself that is so rare and so needed.

    These types of signs still exist in potentially dangerous worksites like “We have worked XXX days without a serious injury”.

    It’s a non-subtle reminder that supposed “accidents” are within all of our collective control.

  • Daniel Bowman Simon

    Alright, I did a little more homework.

    On August 1, 1935, The New York Times published a short editorial:

    The phrase “menace to civilization” is overworked these days. What with dictators, gangsters and demagogues, there are so many menaces that it is hard to pick and choose among them; but certainly one of the greatest is the reckless automobile driver. Anything that can be done either to reform or to control him is to be commended. Brooklyn’s latest contribution is a pair of “accident meters” set up this week on what is known as the “Kings Highway Safety Circle.” They carry the warning, “Slow Up!” the question, “What’s Your Hurry?” and the plea “Make Brooklyn Safe!” Erected by the Brooklyn Safety Council, provision is made for registering daily the number of persons seriously injured on Brooklyn streets during the year to date as well as the fatal accidents during the current week. The “meters” will be seen daily by thousands of motorists. It is to be hoped that they will take the warning to heart.

    And in 1935 also, the “National safety news,” published by the National Safety Council, American Society of Safety Engineers, printed the following blurb:

    The Traffic circle at Kings Highway between East Thirty-fourth and Thirty-Fifty Streets, Brooklyn has been dedicated as “Kings Highway Safety Circle.” The “Death-O-Meter” shown in the above illustration was erected at this conspicuous location by the Brooklyn Safety Council. The two meters at 24 feet high and are painted in black and bright red. They can be seen a a considerable distance and are floodlighted at night.

    Here is that site today:
    http://maps.google.com/maps?q=Kings+Highway,+Brooklyn,+Kings,+New+York+11229&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&ie=UTF8&hl=en&oi=georefine&cd=2&geocode=FZ6jawIdmn6X-w&split=0&sll=40.620259,-73.941775&sspn=0.084023,0.094713&hq=&hnear=Kings+Highway&t=h&ll=40.619841,-73.941153&spn=0.003836,0.007457&z=17

    National Safety Council is: http://www.nsc.org
    American Society of Safety Engineers is: http://www.asse.org/

  • So why exactly did “slow up” become “slow down”

  • Glenn

    Might be a horse riding reference…you pull up/back on the reins to get a horse to stop…

  • Safety councils are the way to go. They are funded by the state . In new York city the DOT gets that money. But as we all know we need the multi agency approach that a safety council brings.
    the city council should reinstate safety council , which is essentially what Jessica Lapin’s intro attempted to do. The fact there is already a funding and legal structure in place is a great head start.
    We do not have to re invent the wheel …

  • First, there’s a sign on QB telling drivers to slow to 30 mph so that if they hit a pedestrian, the pedestrian might live.

    Second, since the 1920s, people have gotten used to cars. They walk on the roadways less, bike much less, cross the street on red less, and so on. This has caused the accident rate per vehicle to go down sharply, even though the streets are by objective measures less safe.

  • Ian Turner

    HAHAHAHAHA, how many people were killed by cyclists this year?

  • Andypbrowne

    I used to live on a military installation or two. They still maintain signs like the one featured in this article. It’s sorta a regimented thing, a sign like this, but it was generally accepted and regarded as a positive apparatus. Why don’t civilian communities have these any longer?

  • Ian Turner

    Probably none. A car going at 35mph has 50x the kinetic energy of a bike going at 15mph.

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