The Checkered History of NYC Taxis

New York, New York.

In a city known for its skyscrapers, theater/nightlife, and that “love us or get lost” attitude, it’s hard to pick just one thing to represent the Big Apple. But when you talk about the city (especially driving there), it’s hard not to mention its iconic taxicabs.

To honor the rides that give us designated drivers on demand, here’s a little history on NYC taxicabs.

1800s – The horse-and-carriage-days

Before there were taxicabs, New Yorkers relied on horse-drawn carriages, known as cabriolets (or cabs for short), to get from here to there. While it may sound romantic and glamorous to travel the streets of New York like Cinderella, the reality was anything but a fairy tale.

Carriages were slow, causing congestion throughout the city. And the horses themselves, aside from smelling like horses, caused a huge amount of waste. (All that hay has to go somewhere, right?)

Clearly, the city needed alternative transportation.

1890s – Electric taxicabs and the first car accident

When the 1890s rolled around, electric (and steam-powered) cars were zooming down streets throughout the country, including in New York. And New Yorkers, ever enterprising, decided to use these electric cars to compete with the ole horse-drawn buggies — debuting the first electric hansom cabs in 1897.

Quieter, cleaner, and faster, the first electric cabs were immensely popular. But their arrival also brought (surprise, surprise) traffic accidents. On September 13, 1899, an electric taxicab struck Henry H. Bliss as he dismounted from a streetcar, making this traffic accident the first recorded in New York City history.

1907 – Gas-powered New York taxis enter the scene

Electric taxis were a vast improvement over the equine rides, but they weren’t completely ideal. Electric cars — while the height of technological innovation today — were impractical in their infancy. Batteries weighed around 800 pounds, making them slow. And let’s not forget that whole recharging thing.

So when gas-powered taxis appeared in France, American entrepreneur Harry N. Allen saw a great opportunity. He purchased the city’s first fleet — 65 shiny red Darracq cabs, fully loaded with fare meters — from France, where they were already in use.

(In case you’re wondering, the term “taxi” stems from the French “taximètre,” a combination of the words “taxe,” or tariff, and “metre,” or measure. Makes sense, huh?)

On October 1, 1907, the very first U.S. taxis traveled down 5th Avenue to the spanking-new Plaza Hotel on 59th Street. And the streets of New York haven’t been the same since.

1920s – Checker cabs make their debut

Taxi cabs in the early days came in all different colors, from red to green to yellow. But the iconic Checker cabs didn’t make their grand entrance until 1922 when Morris Markin founded the Checker Cab Manufacturing Corporation.

Though produced in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Checker cabs, distinguished by their black and white checker designs, were made famous in NYC. And they were hugely popular from the get-go. In fact, during the 1920s, more than 7,000 Checker cabs transported people to their destinations in the city that never sleeps.

1960s – NYC taxis turn yellow

By the second half of the 20th century, taxis were a vital part of life in New York. But with the proliferation of taxis came the proliferation of unlicensed, illegal taxicabs.

To standardize the industry and to help passengers distinguish between legal and illegal rides, lawmakers required all certified taxicabs to be painted yellow in 1967. To date, medallion yellow taxis remain the only cabs authorized to respond to street hails.

1990s – The last Checker cab checks out

As the decades changed, so did the appearance of the taxis (the color, of course, stayed the same). Over the years, Fords, Plymouths, Chevies, and of course, Checker all graced New York’s city streets.

But all good things come to an end. By the ’90s, it was the end of the road for Checker with only 2 cabs still chugging along. The last NYC Checker cab (#1N11) retired in June of ‘99.

If you’re interested in more facts about New York, our fact sheet on New York car insurance requirements and info for Empire State drivers has tons of useful insights.

Driving Safety: How Safe Are Our Roads?

Every driver knows that the road is a potentially dangerous place and that the risk for car accidents and (not to be morbid) fatalities comes with the territory. But now drivers everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief because our roads are safer than they’ve ever been in recorded history.

Traffic fatalities drop to lowest level on record

Preliminary data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that fatality rates declined by 1.6 percent for the first 9 months of 2011 compared to the same time frame in 2010. Big deal, you say?

Well, actually, it kind of is.

A 1.6 percent decrease may not seem like much, but when it comes to lives saved it’s monumental. There were nearly 400  fewer fatalities in the first 3 quarters of 2011 compared with 2010. And when you consider that traffic fatality rates dropped to their lowest level in history in 2010, you can see why we’re excited.

In fact, though Americans are driving more than ever — 3 trillion miles in 2010 alone — the number of deadly accidents has decreased relative to the number of miles driven. In other words, we have more drivers on the road putting more miles on their odometers, but the same number of fatalities as in 1949.

Car accidents on the decline

In 1990, about 6.5 million car accidents took place on our highways and byways. In 2010, highway safety improved and that number plummeted by one million, or about 20 percent. Of course, as a car insurance company, we think this is pretty great news.

Car technology and safety laws work

So what or who can we thank for our safer roads? The sudden discovery of the safe-driving gene? Seat belts? Air bags? Tougher distracted driving and drinking and driving laws?

Well, it’s a little bit of everything. Nifty things like seat belts and air bags, now standard in every car, have been proven to reduce fatalities by a whopping 61 percent. Plus, with 86 percent of the driving population buckling up and air bags that protect everything from your knees to your forehead, it’s easy to see that safety features have come a long way since 1949.

Additionally, the Highway Loss Data Institute reports that new-on-the-market crash avoidance technology like autonomous braking and adaptive headlights (which shift direction as you steer) have been shown to reduce accidents (particularly front-to-rear fender benders). These features are currently only available as options in higher-end cars. But over time, they might find their way into your ride as standard elements (the way antilock brakes did), improving road and highway safety even more .

Add to these facts an increased public awareness about the dangers of distracted driving and drunk driving — and stricter laws to back it all up — and you’ve got a fairly reliable formula for safe roads.

Special thanks to all you good drivers out there for buckling your seat belts, putting your phones away, and driving as if our safety (and lives) depend on it.

Driving safety tips

While these stats are encouraging, we still have work to do. After all, fatality and accident rates may have dropped, but millions of accidents still happen each year. To help you stay safe on the road, we’ve amassed a wealth of driving safety tips. Check them out and find out how to handle anything the road throws your way, from driving in high winds to handling a car breakdown to avoiding animals on the roads.

Drivers Beware: 4th of July Drunk Driving Statistics (Infographic)

Tomorrow’s July 4, 2012, also known as Independence Day. A day we celebrate our liberation from Great Britain with fireworks and barbeques (naturally).

And of course, barbeques often include drinking (at least if you go to a fun barbeque), which sometimes leads to bad decision making. See where we’re going here? Though some of these decisions are harmless (lampshade hats, anyone?), others are downright dangerous. In fact, thanks to drunk driving, July 4 is the deadliest day of the year on our roads.

With that in mind, we’ve compiled some drunk driving statistics with the hope that they’ll encourage you to think twice before drinking and driving. Happy 4th of July, everyone, but please stay safe on the road tomorrow (and every day).

drunk driving infograph

Related links

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Get the lowdown on breathalyzers and blood alcohol concentration
Sober ride programs by state
Stop impaired driving
How a DUI affects car insurance