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The Sordid History Of Speeding Tickets

Speed limits and all their associated legal paraphernalia have been with us for a while, it seems.  I came across a book called The Strange Laws of Old England by Nigel Cawthorn and found (among heaps of other trivia) a few facts about where these rules all started up.

Back when things that moved by themselves were first invented– horseless carriages, locomotives and Mr Benz’s petrol-powered internal combustion engine – it didn’t take too long until the law makers started shuffling bits of paper and red tape around. It wasn’t the only red thing, either. One of the very first laws controlling motorised traffic (the Locomotive Act of 1865) required any vehicle that didn’t rely on animals to get moving to have a bloke walking 60 yards in front of it carrying a red flag to warn everybody that one of those machines was coming along – if only the cavalcade accompanying the council worker mowing the grass verges near the roads where I live was a simple as one red flag.  While that fellow was walking with the red flag, the car itself should have three drivers at once. (Don’t ask me how – one to steer, one for the accelerator and one for the brake?  One for each pedal?)  The speed limit at this time was a positively blistering 2 miles an hour in town and 4 miles an hour on the open road (the average speed for a trotting horse is 8 miles an hour).  The give way laws dictated that if a horse rider or the driver of a horse-drawn carriage held up his (or, more rarely, her) hand, the car had to stop.  If you failed to comply with the speed limits, naturally, there was a ticket to be passed out and you would be fined the huge amount of £10 max was handed out.  They raised the speed limits 31 years later to 14 miles per hour in rural areas.

Arrest them immediately! This car has only two drivers rather than three!

Arrest them immediately! This car has only two drivers rather than three!

It was about this time that the very first speeding ticket was indeed handed out to a speed freak named Walter Arnold, a resident of Kent who was caught doing 8 miles per hour in an urban area, thus exceeding the speed limit by 6 miles per hour (alternatively, doing quadruple the designated speed limit). A cop chase ensued, with the bicycle-mounted policeman overtaking Mr Arnold and fining him one shilling when he was caught. Considering what would happen to you these days if you were caught doing four times the legal limit in town, this was a fairly light sentence.

Speed traps weren’t far behind, either, being introduced in the early 1900s. By now, the speed limit had been raised to 20 miles per hour on the open road and 10 miles per hour in urban areas.  However, in special effort to clamp down on those naughty leadfooted Brits, speed traps were put in place. These traps consisted of a nice tall hedge, a cop and a stopwatch.  If one of the boys in blue timed you going from A to B in less than a certain amount of time, he would set out in hot pursuit on a bicycle.

Bicyclists didn’t have it all their own way, though.  Those rattling bone-shakers could spook horses and make them bolt – and if you think today’s traffic can be dangerous, you haven’t seen what a horse having a panic attack can do.  One particular by-law required cyclists to “inquire politely” if they wanted to overtake a horse-drawn carriage so the driver of the horses knew to take a bit of extra care.  A lot more charming than putting on the indicators…

If you are looking for a bit of light reading for the holidays coming up, you can have a bit of a peek at this book, if you can track it down.  There’s more trivia about traffic laws – including the fact that a cabby (taxi driver) is allowed to pee on the rear wheel of the taxi as long as he (presumably!) has his right hand on the wheel – and a list of the offences that might have been the one that put your ancestors on the ship to Botany Bay.