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Gallup Vault: The Wild West of Auto Safety in 1939

Gallup Vault: The Wild West of Auto Safety in 1939

An April 6, 1939, Gallup article on public support for a variety of auto safety proposals is a jarring reminder that basic regulatory measures such as drivers' tests, speed limits and car inspections didn't always exist. Yet, at the time of the poll, about 30 years after the first Ford Model T rolled off the line, Gallup found broad public support for a variety of measures designed to keep drivers and pedestrians safe. One measure in particular, revoking licenses of drunk drivers, reached as high as 95%.

Americans in 1939 Gave Solid Support to Nine of 10 Auto Safety Proposals
To reduce automobile accidents, would you favor any of the following measures?
Yes No
% %
Revoke licenses of drunk drivers 95 5
Uniform traffic laws and regulations for all states 93 7
Compulsory brake and headlight inspection 90 10
Jail sentences for drunken drivers 90 10
Strict laws against jaywalking 89 11
Strict drivers' tests with regular physical and mental examination 87 13
Compulsory auto liability insurance 76 24
Installing "speed governors" on motors so that cars could not go faster than 50 miles an hour 74 26
More severe punishment for violation of traffic laws 64 36
Special markings for cars whose drivers have been at fault in accidents 46 54
Gallup, March 6-11, 1939

Solid majorities of Americans favored nine of the 10 proposals tested, with 80% or higher support for six proposals. Only one proposal -- requiring special markings for cars whose drivers had been at fault in accidents -- earned less than majority support.

In the poll, 56% of adults reported owning a car, and the rates of acceptance for new auto laws among this group were nearly as high as among the public at large.

The article also referenced the reason for the policy prescriptions -- the fact that in 1938, "32,000 people were killed in automobile accidents, or one person every 15 minutes." Remarkably, that figure is not much different from the approximately 40,000 auto fatalities that occurred in the U.S. in 2016, despite a nearly three-fold increase in the population since 1938 and a major increase in the percentage owning cars. In other words, the per capita rate of auto deaths among car owners was significantly greater in 1938 than it is today.

George Gallup captured the magnitude of the problem in his 1939 article, writing, "The American public does not complacently accept the idea that people are bound to be killed in automobile accidents, and it is in a frame of mind to submit to measures of the most drastic sort if there is any chance that traffic accidents could thereby be reduced."

Read the original Gallup news release.

These data can be found in Gallup Analytics.

Read more from the Gallup Vault.


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