Touch and Go: Cars, Health and Cleveland's First Traffic Signals

Today’s Google doodle reminds us of the innovation and order brought by Garrett Morgan’s creation of the traffic signal. Cleveland became the first city to install these devices on August 5th, 1914 at the bustling Euclid Avenue and E. 105th St. intersection — on the current campus of Cleveland Clinic, just down the street from CWRU and our museum [1,6].

The traffic signal became a necessary fixture in light of alarming statistics about the dangers of automobiles and their fatal accidents in the early 20th century. From when the U.S. Census Bureau began collecting information in 1906 to 1914, the number of automobile fatalities per 100,000 population increased from 0.40 to 4.28 [7]. City traffic made automobiles even more dangerous, with Cleveland having the 3rd highest number traffic deaths in 1917 with 19.8 per 100,000 population!

The Cleveland Plain Dealer published an article in 1914 entitled “How Health is Injured in Riding in Automobiles” that examined how the increased pace of life brought on by the private automobile and other technologies allowed for more productivity at the cost of over-exertion [2]. Exhausted drivers posed a danger to themselves and other citizens. The human mind, focused now only on driving to and from work, did not have, the article’s author claimed, the same exercise it could have on the street car or when walking. Popular writers and practitioners alike saw this state of singularity as having a damaging effect on the nerves if drivers did not seek other mental and physical activities [5]. Public health campaigns sought to make driving safer for distracted drivers by initiatives that included Morgan’s traffic signals and crossing guards [3].

Dr. Samuel Kelley, a Cleveland pediatrician, posing with his automobile, 1910.

Dr. Samuel Kelley, a Cleveland pediatrician, posing with his automobile. From JAMA Vol. LVI(15), 1910.

This uptick in mortalities accompanied the boom in automobiles on U.S. streets to nearly 2 million vehicles by 1917 — some of which were ambulances and physicians’ cars. The National Automobile Chamber of Commerce reported in 1921 that over 65% of physicians drove their own passenger vehicles for private and business use [4]. Dr. Samuel Kelley, professor at Cleveland’s Western Reserve University and a prominent local pediatrician, utilized his car to attend to his extensive private practice, going as far to extoll his car’s virtues in a 1910 JAMA volume [3].  Lakeside Hospital employed ambulances to quickly transport patients to their downtown location.

Lakeside Hospital Ambulance, c. 1910.

Lakeside Hospital Electric Ambulance, c. 1905. In 1912, gas-powered ambulances replaced these vehicles for transport to Lakeside. Courtesy of the University Hospital Archives.

Despite the dangers of automobile transportation, improvements in car design and traffic regulation led to eventual decreases in the number of accidents per vehicle and safer, more expedient treatment by medical attendants. Garrett’s development and installation of the traffic signal 101 years ago continues to reduce injury and add some order to the chaos of 21st century life.


[1] Garrett, Morgan A. Nov. 20, 1923. U.S. Patent US1475024 A.

[2] “How Health is Injured by Riding in an Automobile.” Dec. 15, 1914. Cleveland Plain Dealer. p. 35.

[3] Kelley, Samuel W. 1910. Choose a moderately heavy car with a long wheel-base and big wheels. Journal for the American Medical Association 54(15): 1257.

[4] National Automobile Chamber of Commerce. 1921. Facts and Figures of the Automobile Industry. New York, NY.

[5] Motorvehical safety increasing. 1921. The Journal of the Society of Automotive Engineers 8(5):486.

[6] Street Crossing Traffic Signals, Cleveland, Ohio. 1914. Engineering News 72(23):1130.

[7] U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. 1919. “Violent Deaths Excluding Suicide.” p. 61. In: Mortality Statistics. Washington, DC.

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