How the Automobile Became a Suicide Machine

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New technologies can offer fantastic opportunities for humanity. They can help us become more mobile, more connected, and more safe from life's everyday dangers. But along with all of the benefits, technology often also provides new, more accessible ways for us to off ourselves. And in the 1920s, the automobile offered that in spades.

The rise of the automobile in the 1920s was tremendous. At the start of the decade there were 6.6 million registered cars on American roads. By 1929, that number had skyrocketed to 23 million. Your average American had more income (not to mention more credit), which helped the car become the hottest new transportation tech of the 1920s.

It was known as the Roaring Twenties and times were relatively good. That is, if you compare it with what came before the 1920s (World War I, where over 9 million people died) and what came after the 1920s (the Great Depression, where unemployment hovered around 25 percent). But despite the 1920s' reputation in popular media for jolly times and carefree wonderfulness, people still had problems. And perhaps more to the point, many people still struggled terribly with mental illness.


In his fascinating 1989 book The Great Car Craze, which explores the rise of the car in Southern California, Ashleigh Brilliant explains that despite everything the automobile did to help make humans more mobile, it sadly provided a new (disturbingly efficient) means to the ultimate end:

By 1929, "jumping in front of vehicle" had become sufficiently common as a means of suicide to be given a separate listing in the annual [Los Angeles] City Police statistics. At least as early as 1923 it had been discovered that automobile exhaust gas, when directed into gopher holes, was an effective means of destroying their inhabitants. Car owners who tired of the struggle were soon employing the same method upon themselves, though it was still sufficiently unfamiliar in 1931 to require special explanation in John O'Hara's novel Appointment in Samarra.


And it wasn't just the cars themselves . The new infrastructure being built for these cars was also being utilized for macabre means.

Later the great structures built for conveying the new vehicles smoothly over deep obstacles, especially the graceful Colorado Street Bridge, would act like magnets for would-be suicides.


Suicide existed long before the automobile arrived. But every piece of technology is simply a tool that has no opinion of its own. How we choose to use them is obviously up to us.

Needless to say, if you struggle with suicidal thoughts you should talk with someone about them by calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.


Image: Car wreck circa 1920 from the Library of Congress