The Seattle windshield pitting epidemic, as it’s known among those who study mass psychology or read Skeptical Inquirer magazine, began in Bellingham, Wash., in the spring of 1954.
In April 13 of that year, a handful of people in Bellingham discovered unexplained pitting, chips or dings in their cars’ windshields. The phenomenon quickly spread to nearby Sedro Wooley, Anacortes and Whidbey Island, where officers stationed at the naval base in Oak Harbor spent five hours examining the windshields of vehicles on the base.
By the end of the day, more than 2,000 vehicles from Bellingham to Oak Harbor had been reported as damaged.
This could not be, as first thought, the work of vandals or hooligans with BB guns. It had spread too far, too fast.
There were theories; some blamed a powerful new radio transmitter, which had been recently installed by the U.S. Navy. Others blamed cosmic rays. Those who claimed they had seen their windshields bubble before their very eyes blamed sand fleas.
The next morning, on April 14, Seattle newspapers carried front-page reports of the looming threat from the north. Police were swamped with calls. By April 15, with close to 3,000 reports of pitted windshields, Seattle Mayor Allan Pomeroy wired President Dwight D. Eisenhower asking for the co-operation of federal agencies.
The prevailing voice of reason amid the hysteria was Sergeant Max Allison, the head of Seattle’s police crime laboratory. He concluded the pitting damage was only five per cent attributable to hoodlumism; the rest was public hysteria.
The Seattle windshield epidemic has since been dismissed as a textbook case of collective delusion.
The number of pedestrians injured or killed by vehicles on B.C. roads over the past weeks is not imagined – it’s real.
What it has in common with the Seattle windshield epidemic is that is has become an epidemic, but only because we have finally noticed.
The numbers have been parsed many ways in the headlines: “A dozen pedestrians hit by cars in the past week;” “Seven people hit in 24 hours;” or, as the B.C. Coroner’s Service put it in a special bulletin on Thursday, “Thirteen pedestrian fatalities during the past five weeks.”
In the Lower Mainland, it was the most tragic cases that first grabbed our attention. A 42-year-old mother of two struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver at 43rd and Prince Edward in Vancouver last Sunday; a 65-year-old woman also struck and killed on Sunday in Chilliwack; and the well-publicized case of two joggers in Surrey, hit by an SUV on Monday night. A videotape of that incident has led to the arrest of a suspect.
After these incidents, the flood ensued. Major and minor incidents reported breathlessly at all hours, often with few details; a cab hitting a scooter counted among them. Warnings followed from police and the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, and finally, a public safety bulletin from the B.C. Coroner’s Service was issued on Thursday.
The reality is people get hit by cars almost daily in the Lower Mainland. They may not always be fatal crashes, but most, until now, are reported as traffic bulletins. “An accident involving a pedestrian” essentially means, “Traffic is going to be slow through there, so find another way to get around this inconvenience,” rather than, “Can you believe this has happened again? So tragic.”
Like the fabricated-from-nothing hysteria of the Seattle windshield epidemic of 1954, this has us all looking for something that was there all along – something we have failed to notice before.
I welcome this new-found media interest in the fate of pedestrians. Far from being collective delusion, it is a horrible reality. It’s time we all started paying attention and did something to prevent deaths that are, without a doubt, preventable.
The bulletin issued this week by the B.C. Coroner’s Service says 221 pedestrians have been killed in B.C. over the past four years. To put than in perspective, the A-330 Airbus you routinely board for your flight to Toronto holds 228 people.
If one of those crashed every four years, killing everyone aboard, I think that would be news.