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Birth of the Car Wreck

Fun seekers of the 1890s looked to the horseless carriage for new thrills. But 100 years ago this week, at least one driver found that the automobile can also be a hazard.

On May 30, 1896, motorist Henry Wells hit bicyclist Evylyn Thomas on a New York City street. It was America’s first auto accident. Thomas’s injury: a broken leg; car that Wells was driving: a Duryea motor wagon; Well’s penalty: a night in jail;

The first automobile fatality: Henry H. Bliss (Sept. 13, 1899); how he died: a car hit him after he stepped off a New York streetcar.

Auto accidents: in 1937: 7 million; in 1970: 16 million; in 1994: 6.5 million; auto accident deaths in 1937: 39,643; in 1970: 54,633; in 1994: 40,676.

First speeding arrest: New York cabdriver Jacob German (May 20, 1899); his speed: 12 mph; state that enacted the first speed limit: Connecticut (May 21, 1901); the law: 15 mph on country highways, 12 mph within city limits.

Early safety feature: a “pedestrian catcher” mounted on the front of the car; year the first seat belt was developed: 1908; year the government required new cars to have front-seat lap-shoulder belts: 1968; first company to sell cars with air bags: General Motors (1974).

U.S. News & World Report, June 3, 1996, p. 14.