In the 1920’s and 1930’s, the United States automotive industry saw the development of innovative engineering in automobiles such as semi-automatic transmissions, hydraulic brake systems, and engines with more and more cylinders. Fatal car accidents and traffic safety caught the attention of legislators in Texas and all over the country during that time. In the late 1930’s, politicians and their constituents feared that older cars posed a large threat to public safety. However, few people realized the overwhelming threats were actually new high-speed cars combined with people’s reckless driving and disregard for traffic laws.
The political cartoon by John Knott titled, “Should Be Retired With Unsafe Cars”, published on February 27, 1938, in the Dallas Morning News, illustrates the undeniable danger reckless drivers and high-speed sports cars manufactured at the time posed for passengers in other vehicles as well as pedestrians. In the cartoon, a man in a suit and tie labeled “Chronic Wild Driver” is illustrated in a sports car driving away from a crash where two people are left on the ground. One of the victims of the crash appears to be crawling away from the crash as he looks in the direction of the reckless driver, while the other victim is left lying on the ground unconscious or dead. The wild driver appears to be driving a 1938 BMW 328 Sports Coupe (Goodwood Revival). Released in 1938, the car was among the finest of its class at the time with a 6 cylinder, 4-speed manual engine and a then astonishing top speed of 93 miles per hour. Even in 1999, the car was a finalist for the “Car of the Century” award by a worldwide panel of automotive journalists (Law).
The title of Knott’s cartoon, “Should Be Retired With Unsafe Cars” directly correlates to the editorial that was published in the same edition of Dallas Morning News; the editorial, titled “Logical Car Retirement” is written in line with public opinion at the time and focuses on the danger of older cars and their increased likelihood of breaking down or losing brake control in a highway. Although the main focus of the editorial is older cars, it does state that, “admittedly, the major portion of fatal accidents (was) in the new and high-speed car class.” By illustrating a high-end sports car in the cartoon, Knott appears to have agreed with this point, however, Knott labeled the man in the car a “Chronic Wild Driver” expressing his belief that cars were not only the ones to blame.
At the time, the development of car safety features was almost nonexistent compared to the development of faster engines (World Health Organization). Because of this, Texas began to establish laws that regulated certain driving habits, instating it’s first mandatory drivers license examination in 1937 (U.S. Department of Transportation). The original driver’s license law of Texas took effect on February 14, 1936, and required each driver to possess a license issued by the County Tax Collector.Unfortunately, these early public safety laws did little to stop the massive loss of lives. During that time, cars became a typical household item. Vehicle ownership in the United States rose 150.44% from 1920 to 1930 (Davis).
In the U.S. in the late 1930’s, legislation was passed with the intention of making highways safer. However, these laws did not have a large impact on people’s driving habits at the time (Gibson and Crooks 453). At the time, people’s driving habits were predominant over their attention to traffic laws. The journal article, “A Theoretical Field-Analysis of Automobile-Driving” by James J. Gibson and Laurence E. Crooks explores the human behavior and self-awareness while driving. The article states that of the skills demanded by contemporary civilization, driving an automobile is the most important to humans because a defect in it has the greatest threat to our lives. Furthermore, in 1938, the sense that traffic laws were absolute agreed with the act of dangerous driving (467).
The need for more driver’s education in the public school system at that time was overwhelming (470). Additionally, the public needed to gain a common attention to the danger they were causing themselves through their ignorant driving habits. The mixture of chronic wild drivers and fast cars was detrimental to the highway safety of Texas in the late 1930’s and in his cartoon, John Knott emphasizes the danger of this combination.
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“Logical Car Retirement.” Dallas Morning News, 27 Feb. 1938. Editorial.
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