Back in 1865, the Red Flag Act restricted national speeds to a dizzying 4mph. It also required that a man walk in front of vehicles at all times brandishing the eponymous red flag until it was finally put to one side in 1878.
The world’s first road fatality came in 1896 when Mrs Bridget Driscoll stepped into the path of a Roger-Benz ‘horseless carriage’ and stood ‘bewildered’ by the machine as it zigzagged towards her at a ‘tremendous pace’ (no more than 8 mph). Frozen with fear, she was run over and later died in what was judged to be an accidental death.
Cars were feared because they were different, but there was nothing new about the way people drove them. In 1720, traffic fatalities from ‘furiously driven’ carts and coaches were claimed to be the leading cause of death in London. In the New York of 1867, horses were killing an average of four pedestrians a week, roughly the same number as are killed by cars today with denser traffic and a significantly larger population.
In 1817, Lord Byron wrote to Thomas Moore: ‘Last week I had a row on the road… with a fellow in a carriage, who was impudent to my horse. I wheeled round, rode up to the window, and asked him what he meant. He grinned, and said some foolery, which produced him an immediate slap in the face, to his utter discomfiture. Much blasphemy ensued, and some menace, which I stopped by dismounting and opening the carriage door, and intimating an intention of mending the road with his immediate remains, if he did not hold his tongue. He held it.’
A Texas City grand jury recently heard the case of a truck driver tailgating a man’s daughter and waving his arms at her, prompting her father to give chase in his Mercedes. ‘There was evidentially some swerving between the two vehicles. The two exchanged words and were cussing at each other,’ explained Captain Goetschius of the Texas police force. The men pulled over and faced each other. The Merc driver pulled out his pistol, but the truckie was faster on the draw. He floored Merc Man by planting a bowl of oatmeal in his face. Proof, if any was needed, of the benefit of a healthy diet.
We become as stubborn as mules inside our tin cans, even when confronted with the threat of losing more than our licence. On the edge of an otherwise serene Cotswold village, one enraged woman rammed another from behind with her Vauxhall Nova. She was so angry that she sat there gunning the engine until the front wheels shredded through to the steel cords. The resulting sparks ignited her engine’s fluids and the whole vehicle lit up with her inside it. She threatened would-be rescuers with a clenched fist, preferring to perish in the flames.
The machines we use these days have been through a time warp, but the human psyche hasn’t always kept up.