A 1939 editorial in the Vancouver Sun editorial blamed the large number of traffic accidents on the Big Bend Highway near Revelstoke on prairie drivers. “Travelling to Vancouver they have the outside of the road, theoretically,” wrote the Sun. “But in practice most of them take the middle or hug the inside. It’s the mental hazard that gets them after years of travel on the broad prairie.” The Winnipeg Tribune fired back that Manitoba drivers on BC highways “are being pushed into the ditch by erratic coast drivers.” Moreover, Winnipeg had recently gone 288 consecutive days without a single traffic fatality, despite being “over-run with goofy pedestrians who ignore all safety rules about crossing the street.”
Unwilling to play second fiddle to Winnipeg, the Sun took the Tribune’s comments as a challenge and, in conjunction with the Traffic Safety Council, launched “100 Deathless Days.” The idea was to cajole the city’s motorists to be extra cautious for 100 consecutive days beginning 1 July 1939.
On July 3, the men behind the campaign were congratulating themselves for making it through an entire holiday weekend with no fatalities and only minor traffic injuries. Mayor Telford was preparing to officially dedicate a sign that had been installed at Granville and Georgia that would countdown the number of deathless days until the conclusion of the campaign.
Later that same day, the campaign was sadly “interrupted” when 55 year-old Thomas Hatley was struck dead by a car at Main and Station streets. The Sun editorialized that only a small minority of motorists – roughly 2% – was responsible for an “orgy of lawbreaking” on the city’s streets and whose licences ought to be revoked. In other words, it was essentially a law enforcement problem.
The campaign restarted, but on 10 July, the Sun revealed that Mildred Graham was on her deathbed after another traffic mishap, causing the paper’s optimism to wane: “We might just as well have started out on a mass rocket flight to the moon,” mused the Sun, 30 years before rocket flights to the moon were possible. It wasn’t the police department’s fault, since “all the police between here and Bow Street couldn’t keep our drivers in line.” Nevertheless, Chief Constable Foster said that he would instruct the entire police force to enforce traffic laws instead of leaving it all to the Traffic Squad.
Pedestrians weren’t to blame either in the Sun’s view. Sure, they do foolish things, but “so long as motorists go on assuming that the pedestrian has no rights, we might as well pack our Deathless Days Campaign away in mothballs with the New Year’s Resolutions and admit we don’t want to save lives.” Unless Vancouver drivers adjusted their attitudes, we might as well “admit that we haven’t got what it takes to stop killing people” and should just accept that Vancouverites are simply of “weaker moral fibre” than Winnipeggers.
100 Deathless Days began anew a third time after Mildred Graham succumbed to her injuries on 14 July. But when 65 year-old Edward Luff was mowed down the next day on Hastings, the Sun said it didn’t count because he was killed by a streetcar, not a private automobile. A nine year-old cyclist was also run over that day at Keefer and Hawks, but he survived. Another cyclist, 15 year-old Billy MacDonald, died a couple days earlier after being thrown from his bicycle on Gravely Street, but that one was classified as a “freak accident” rather than a traffic death, and so didn’t affect the campaign.
The fourth restart of the campaign came on 19 July following the death of 50 year-old William Hanna when he crashed his car into a bus at Granville and 54th Avenue. The Sun’s editorial that day was less impassioned than earlier in the campaign, simply telling people to be careful and offering tips to avoid killing or being killed in the streets. If nothing else, the campaign was getting Vancouverites to think about traffic safety, the paper reassured itself and its readers.
The police department was denied funding to beef up its traffic squad with a slew of special constables. Instead, Chief Foster put out a call for 500 citizen volunteers to monitor traffic infractions. Volunteers would submit their reports to the chief, who would then send a letter to lawbreakers informing them their behaviour behind the wheel was unacceptable. One hundred and seventy-five civic minded folks from all walks of life answered the call, and in the month of August alone, 530 violations were reported to the police, although there is no way of knowing if a letter from the police with no legal consequences to back it up influenced anyone’s driving behaviour.
After 74 year-old J. McDevitt was run over by a motorcycle at Seymour and Smythe, the Deathless Days campaign restarted for the fifth and final time. The month of August was free of traffic fatalities, but the onset of the Second World War in September gave the Sun more important things with which to fill its pages and the campaign was “quietly dropped.” Another interpretation was that campaign organizers realized that they were asking too much of Vancouver motorists to not “occasionally hurtle another car off the highway or destroy a pedestrian wearing an offensively-hued shirt.” The Winnipeg Tribune felt its city was vindicated by Vancouver’s campaign: “It was not on account of deaths due to careless driving by the many prairie motorists then in Vancouver, but as a result of the inability of local talent to suppress their homicidal tendencies, that the campaign ended so ignomiously.”
Why were Vancouver’s streets so treacherous? In an article about how Providence, Rhode Island dealt with the same problem, the Sun reported that that city had virtually eliminated traffic deaths by lowering the speed limit to 25 miles an hour, which had little effect on traffic efficiency. The Sun, however, repeatedly returned to the theme of “traffic morality” in diagnosing the problem locally, using the traditional “moral panic” formula that had been successful in other campaigns such as cracking down on drugs or Chinese immigration. Victoria was demonstrating its superior morality, or “traffic conscience,” by embarking on an even more ambitious campaign of “Accident Free Weeks.” While Vancouver was “half-heartedly pretending not to KILL people,” wrote the Sun, “Victoria is determined not to HURT people.”
After the campaign was abandoned, the head of the Traffic Safety Council said he had come to the conclusion that the problem lay entirely with pedestrians. Motorists were perfectly cooperative during the campaign, but as for pedestrians, he said, “there was no evidence of any co-operation whatsoever.”
With no reference to the antebellum campaign, the Vancouver Police launched “80 Deathless Days” in 1955. This time it was in response to the annual “80 Dark Days of Danger” created by shorter winter days. There was also no question this time as to who was to blame: old people, out alone at night, wearing drab coloured clothing. If the city’s seniors refused to remain in the safety of their homes, the Sun suggested they should at least ask themselves “Is this journey necessary?” before venturing out onto the dark, treacherous streets.
The 1950s campaign was another big failure. By June 1956, Sun columnist Jack Wasserman mentioned seeing a sign promoting the campaign on an “ancient Dodge hearse” and wondered if that meant the 80 Deathless Days drive was dead. In 1960, a Sun reporter investigating why Trail, BC hadn’t had a single traffic death in five years reported that Vancouver had only managed 54 consecutive deathless days in the same period.
The 100 Deathless Days Campaign and similar initiatives weren’t unique to Vancouver, and looking back they seem to signify that moment in history when significant numbers of traffic fatalities became accepted as the cost of the (still fairly recent) transportation system centred on the private automobile. Engineering and technological innovations no doubt brought modest improvements to make automobiles and city streets safer, while other technologies, such as the V8 engine in the 30s and cell phones more recently, have posed new problems.