Asheville Archives: Locals campaign for greater safety among motorists, 1936

STOP AND GO: The Nov. 14, 1922 Billy Borne cartoon predates the 1936 safety campaign. But the drawing, originally featured in The Asheville Citizen, illustrates Asheville’s early and ongoing interest in traffic and automobile safety.

“It is a commonly held opinion that in lawless America, life is cheap and that our homicide rate is frightful — but the number of persons slain by criminals or in quarrels is not half that of the persons who die frightful deaths amid the automotive wreckage on the highways and streets!” the Sunday edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times declared on Jan. 5, 1936.

According to the article, in the state of North Carolina automobile accidents accounted for an average of 82 deaths per month; meanwhile, homicides totaled 37. Nationwide, traffic deaths averaged “23.2 per 10,000,000 gallons of gasoline consumed,” the article continued. “North Carolina’s average is 36.6 — more than 50 per cent greater!”

For this reason, the newspaper reported, the Chamber of Commerce was launching a local safety campaign. Its goal was to have 20,000 Buncombe County and Asheville motorists sign pledge cards to drive more carefully.

The same day’s paper featured a sample of the pledge card:

  1. Drive at a moderate speed on the proper side of the road and not cut corners.
  2. Observe traffic signals.
  3. Not pass cars on curves or hills where vision is restricted.
  4. Stop at stop signs.
  5. Be particularly watchful for pedestrians.
  6. Give hand signals before turning left or right or stopping.
  7. Refrain from driving if under the influence of intoxicants.
  8. Keep brakes and lights in proper condition.
  9. Refrain from reckless driving and be fair to other drivers in traffic.

“Starting tomorrow a determined drive will begin to get virtually ever person in the city and county who drives an automobile to put down in black and white his or her solemn promise to better observe safety rules in the future,” the paper declared.

Early momentum was strong. Local radio stations carried a variety of programming about the perils of reckless driving. The paper ran advertisements warning against deadly accidents. Local schools hosted essay contests on the topic. The American Enka corporation invited workers and community members alike to view a film on the issue. And local Boy Scout troops flocked to filling stations with pledge cards in hand, seeking signatures.

“The Scouts will operate in such a manner as to cause the motorists no delay and to create no inconvenience to station attendance,”  The Asheville Citizen wrote on Jan. 28, 1936.

Shortly after its launch, Arthur Fulk, North Carolina’s director of division of highway safety, issued a statement praising the local campaign. He also reminded readers of the grim numbers: In 1935, 1,095 people were killed in North Carolina and another 6,950 injured by automobiles.

Fulk then emphasized that a large percentage of these accidents occurred between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. — stressing that high speeds and darkness made for a lethal combination.

“A good slogan for all drivers would be ‘Sun Down, Slow Down,’” Fulk proclaimed.

By March 11, 1936, the paper reported that 3,000 pledge cards had been signed. But subsequent coverage on the safety campaign waned. It is unclear whether or not the Chamber of Commerce reached its goal of 20,000 signatures.

One thing is for certain, though. Had Fulk and local members leading the 1936 campaign lived to see dawn of the cellphone, they’d likely add at least one more promise to their pledge card: Refrain from texting and driving.

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.



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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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