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John Francis Knott was the editorial cartoonist for The Dallas Morning News from 1912 to 1957. His work appeared next to daily editorials, supplementing the text with evocative imagery.
In the 1930s and 1940s, one topic that Knott often returned to was Dallas traffic. Steady population growth meant more cars and consequently more traffic accidents and deaths. During those decades, The News reported frequently on the state of driving in Dallas.
Knott’s work emphasized sensible driving in order to prevent disaster, supporting consistent traffic laws and local safety campaigns. In the second of a recurring series about Knott’s work, The News looks back at some of his most memorable cartoons about Dallas traffic.
July 31, 1936 – The Lazy Driver’s Signal Code
Knott was often lauded by his contemporaries for creating universally understandable cartoons such as this one. We have all encountered drivers who don’t use their turn signals, and it is a genuine source of frustration and danger.
Composition-wise, the lack of any background information at all, such as buildings or even shadows outside the car, makes this cartoon stand out.
The cartoon was published after two people were killed in a traffic accident two days earlier. The editorial chastised drivers who ignore their turn signals — drivers who are “serenely confident that the cars behind know what he intends to do.” The editorial staff stated that turn signals may help save the life of another driver, and a driver “loses nothing by driving properly.”
Jan. 8, 1937 — Many of Them Could Be Alive
Over the years, Knott published several cartoons similar in composition to this one: one or more characters reading about traffic fatality statistics. This one features Knott’s signature creation, Old Man Texas, on the right. Note the detail and variety of headstones in the background.
In 1935, Texas’ first driver’s license law was signed. In the months and years after, critics in The News and throughout Dallas County argued the law did not do enough to stop fatal accidents or punish offenders.
The editorial called the number of accidents and traffic fatalities “appalling,” and expressed the need for a stronger driver’s license law. Members of a commission appointed by Gov. James V. Allred concurred, recommending tightening the driver’s license law and strengthening ways to suspend a license.
Oct. 26, 1940 — The Spoiler
Editorials in The News continued to lament the high number of local traffic fatalities. The editorial that accompanied this cartoon called it “a blot on Dallas’ record for a decade.”
In 1940, the Dallas Citizens Traffic Commission and Dallas Police Department spearheaded a campaign for 200 “deathless days” without any traffic fatalities in the city. Dallas had a streak of 144 days, which ended on Oct. 24 when Edwin W. Lucky was killed in a crash on Ervay Street.
The editorial was optimistic for the city’s future and the safety of its citizens. The 144-day record showed “that the city can continue to be much safer than in the last few years.”
April 12, 1946 — Chronic Headache
Mr. Dallas, depicted here, was not a character commonly featured throughout Knott’s work. In this cartoon, he is a character of average proportions. Earlier in the 1940s, Mr. Dallas was drawn as both an older and shorter figure.
The editorial that accompanied this cartoon remarked on a downtown curbside parking ban that was scheduled to take effect days later. To speed up traffic, the city of Dallas eliminated all parking on several principal downtown streets from 4:30 to 6 p.m. The editorial dubbed curbside parking obsolete and argued that off-street parking in lots or garages is superior.
The universality of this cartoon is again evident, even without the context provided by the editorial. Dallasites still experience issues driving downtown and finding parking.
June 1, 1947 – Turn Right
When this cartoon was published in 1947, Texas cities had different traffic laws and regulations, making it confusing to drive around. “Most traveling Texans have had the experience of running afoul codes elsewhere,” the editorial read.
The editorial remarked on the uniform traffic code bill that was being debated in the Texas Legislature. Thirty-three states already had uniform driving laws, and the editorial had little patience for Texas holding out. “No Texan’s rights are being sacrificed,” the editorial asserts.
The uniform traffic bill, sponsored by Sen. Fred Harris of Dallas, was signed into law by Gov. Beauford Jester on June 18, 1947. Among other things, it required all vehicles to stop at railroad crossings, required that drivers stop and render aid in the event of accidents, and prescribed that pedestrians have the right of way at a crosswalk.
Today we no longer have Knott’s visual approach to capturing the complications of life on the roads in Dallas, but there are still a significant number of local traffic issues. Dallas has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
City officials recently announced a plan to reduce traffic fatalities to zero by 2030.
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