When and Where Was the First Automobile Accident?

Written by Heather Perl 


Every day, all over the world, drivers are crashing into each other. These crashes are usually due to unsafe driving, lack of attention on a driver’s part, or the occasional outside factor, like wildlife darting across the road. But when did this start? Who can claim the first automobile accident, from way back when cars were a new invention?

First Fatal Accident (Sort Of)

August 31, 1869 was the day when the first person died from injuries caused by something like a car. However, most people do not count this as the first car accident, as the vehicle is quite a long way from the cars we know today. Mary Ward, an accomplished scientist, was riding in an experimental steam powered vehicle built by two of her cousins. As she was thrown from the vehicle on a curve, then broke her neck under it, the experiment was probably not considered entirely successful. However, there is a lesson to be learned here: scientific curiosity aside, don’t get in an experimental vehicle until proper tests have been run.

First Car Versus Bicycle

Widely considered to be the real first accident, this occurred on May 30, 1896, during a “horseless wagon race” in New York City. Henry Wells lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a bicyclist named Ebeling Thomas. The bicyclist broke his leg, and the driver was arrested. If only there was a New York Defensive Driving course back then, a lot of chaos could have been avoided. However, as there were several other bicyclists arrested that day for the 1896 equivalent of speeding, perhaps a certain amount of chaos was just par for the course at that time.

First Car Versus Nature

John William Lambert built the first successful automobile in America, so it’s appropriate that he also was involved in one of the first car crashes. In Ohio City, Ohio, in 1891, Lambert’s vehicle came upon a tree root sticking out of the ground. The vehicle hit the root and Lambert lost control, so it slammed into a hitching post. Both John Lambert and the other person in the car walked away with only minor injuries. Ohio City boasts that this was the first car accident, though that should perhaps not be considered a badge of honor. It’s also possible that the above accident from 1896 is considered the first because it is the first to involve more than one vehicle.

First Pedestrian Death in the United States

On September 13, 1899, the first pedestrian death in the United States occurred. (The first pedestrian death ever recorded was three years before that, in the United Kingdom.) In New York City Henry H. Bliss was getting out of a streetcar. Unfortunately, he was never able to reach the curb, as he was struck by an electric powered taxi, and he was not able to overcome the damage done to his head and chest. The driver of the cab was initially arrested, but he was ultimately released. There is now a plaque at the site of the accident.

First Car Versus Car

Oddly, there is no reliable information available regarding the first time one car crashed into another car. There is a popular rumor about an accident in Ohio. The rumor says that there were only two cars in the entire state of Ohio, and they somehow managed to crash into each other in 1895. However, as that story has never been proven, and historical fact makes it seem unlikely, the first crash involving two vehicles remains a mystery.