When and Where Was the First Car Accident?

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That depends on how you define a “car.” In 1869, Irish scientist Mary Ward was riding in a steam-powered automobile built by her cousins. As they rounded a bend in the road, Ward was thrown from her seat and fell in the vehicle’s path. One of the wheels rolled over her and broke her neck, killing her instantly.

Ohio City, Ohio claims the first accident involving a gasoline-powered auto, a little closer to what most of us think of as a car today. In 1891, engineer James Lambert was driving one of his inventions, an early gasoline-powered buggy, when he ran into a little trouble. The buggy, also carrying passenger James Swoveland, hit a tree root sticking out of the ground. Lambert lost control and the vehicle swerved and crashed into a hitching post. Both men suffered minor injuries.

The first recorded pedestrian fatalities by car came a few years later. In 1896, Bridget Driscoll stepped off of a London curb and was struck and killed by a gas-powered Anglo-French model car driven by Arthur Edsall. While the car had a top speed of four miles per hour, neither Edsall nor Driscoll—who witnesses described as “bewildered” by the sight of the vehicle and frozen in place—were able to avoid the collision. Edsall was arrested, but the death was ruled an accident and he was not prosecuted. The coroner who examined Driscoll’s body is famously quoted as saying that he hoped “such a thing would never happen again.” (That same year, a bicyclist was killed by an automobile in New York City.)

The first pedestrian death in the U.S. occurred on September 13, 1899 (not a Friday). Henry Bliss, according to contemporary accounts, was either disembarking from a New York City streetcar or helping a woman step out when he was struck by an electrically-powered taxi cab. He died from injuries to his head and chest the next morning.

The first driver fatality from a collision (not counting Ward’s unfortunate ejection) happened in 1898, when Englishman Henry Lindfield and his son were driving from Brighton to London. Near the end of their trip, Lindfield lost control of the car while going down a hill. They crashed through a fence and Lindfield was thrown from the driver’s seat before the car ran into a tree and caught his leg between them. His son was not hurt and ran for help. At the hospital, surgeons found the leg was crushed below the knee and decided to amputate it. After the operation, Lindfield remained unconscious and died the following day.

The one famous first in this field I can’t seem to track down is the first collision between two cars, gas-powered or otherwise. If anyone knows anything about that or has any leads on that, speak up.

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December 6, 2012 - 4:30am
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