In 1899, Henry Bliss, America’s First Pedestrian Fatality, Was Struck by an Electric Taxi

Modern day taxis on the streets of New York

By Paul Riegler on 30 April 2018
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Although much fuss was made five years ago when a test fleet of Nissan Leaf all-electric taxicabs hit New York City streets hailed as the first all-electric powered taxis, the facts are a little different. In 1899, almost 90% of the New York City taxi fleet was electric.

At the turn of the last century, electric vehicles had several advantages over gas- and steam-powered conveyances. The EVs of the period were quieter, had no engine vibrations, and emitted no exhaust. They also eliminated the need for shifting gears, something most people were unfamiliar with at the dawn of the automotive age. In addition, gasoline-powered vehicles of the time frequently backfired, which startled the many horses that shared the streets with the cars.

Indeed, the first recorded pedestrian-automobile fatality in the United States was that of Henry Bliss, who was killed by a taxi that was electrically powered. Bliss was struck by a taxi, manufactured by the Electric Vehicle Company, driven by Arthur Smith.

The first recorded fatality as the result of a motor vehicle took place in Ireland in 1869. A steam-powered vehicle driven by Irish scientist Mary Ward, who was thrown from her seat while rounding a curve and run over by the vehicle.

Electric vehicles were also quicker to start, whereas steam-powered cars needed up to 45 minutes to build up steam on a cold day and gas-powered cars needed to be crank started, a sometimes dangerous affair. That’s why, in 1900, there were more electric vehicles in New York City than gasoline-powered ones.

EV range wasn’t bad either, although petrol-powered cars typically could go faster and had greater range. Typical was the Detroit Electric car, which had an 80 mile (129 kilometer) range. The American Morrison had what today would be considered a decent range, namely 182 miles (293 kilometers), although it could only go 14 mph (22.5 km/h).

As for the country’s first errant driver, Arthur Smith, he was arrested and charged with manslaughter (apparently vehicular manslaughter was not yet a thing) although charges were later dropped after it was determined that Bliss’ death was an accident.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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