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Traffic Accidents in the 1930s


One of the new hazards on today’s highways involves distracted drivers who don’t pay sufficient attention to the vital task of driving a powerful automobile. Talking or texting on cell phones endangers other motorists, pedestrians, passengers – and the drivers themselves.

Back in the 1930s, people also had traffic-safety concerns. The biggest problem in that era involved speeding. Automobiles had more powerful engines than in earlier times and were capable of ever-higher speeds, being able to zip along at 60 to 75 miles per hour.

It was on this date in 1934 that a Minot Daily News editorial addressed the issue of faster cars causing more crashes in North Dakota. The editorial blamed an increase in traffic accidents on drivers with 70-mile-per-hour cars, but only 15 mile-per-hour brains.

In other words, engines with higher horsepower had “outrun the brain power” of the motorists.

It seems that less thinking had been required in the days of horses and wagons, because horses didn’t move nearly as fast, and they often knew the route. Automobiles took more thought, involving simultaneous use of throttle, clutch, stick-shift, and steering-wheel.

However, the editorial argued that drivers in the 1930s needed to think “perhaps four times as fast when driving 60-miles-an-hour as when driving 30” and that few people could do that consistently.

Evidence of the problem of fast cars and slow minds showed up in traffic fatalities, with the greatest number of deaths attributed to excessive speed. Roads were not as good in those days, and there were no freeways. North Dakota had more miles of gravel and dirt roads than hard-surfaced highways, making high speeds tricky. Deaths came when “drivers lost control … on the open road,” and even more occurred when drivers rolled their autos off treacherous curves.

A major factor in head-on crashes in the 1930s and ‘40s involved “driving on the wrong side of the road.” That happened frequently on narrow dirt roads or gravel roads when middle-of-the-road drivers failed to give the right of way. This may have been complicated by hills back before roadways were routinely leveled out.

And of course drunken driving, inevitably, also caused death.

The best advice for drivers, then and now, was to ‘watch out’ – to drive as if everybody on the road was absolutely irrationally crazy and could almost always “do the wrong thing.”

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “Fast Cars, Slow Minds,” Minot Daily News, August 24, 1934, p. 4.

“How to Drive an Auto,” Bismarck Tribune, January 2, 1930, p. 4.

“Excessive Speed Termed Greatest Accident Cause,” Bismarck Tribune, February 12, 1941, p. 8.

“The Three C’s of Accident Prevention,” Bismarck Tribune, May 5, 1931, p. 4.

“It’s Up To You,” Bismarck Tribune, February 2, 1948, p. 1.

“Have Rules And Obey Them,” Bismarck Tribune, August 5, 1920, p. 5.

“Nearly Half Of North Dakota’s Road System Is Now Improved,” Bismarck Tribune, December 31, 1927, p. 11.