A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Who was the first person to be hit by a car? Why was it decided that cars ought to be registered?

February 10, 2009

Who was the first person ever to be hit by a car?

What was the original reasoning behind the requirement to register cars? Because they're dangerous? To help trace them when stolen? To help police issue citations to those who misuse them? Or is registration simply a tax production venue?

Gfactor replies:

Well, the first person to be run over and killed by a motorized car was the Irish scientist, naturalist, and illustrator Mary Ward, in 1869. She'd been riding in the vehicle – an experimental steam-powered model – only moments earlier, but fell out and was crushed under its iron wheels. But that's not really the kind of scenario we're looking for: we want a classic pedestrian-vs.-auto fatality. For the first such incident on record, we fast-forward to August 17, 1896, when Bridget Driscoll stepped off a curb in the vicinity of London's Crystal Palace and was hit by a car driven by Arthur Edsall. Reports of his speed range from four to seven miles per hour; whatever it was, it was fast enough to kill her. Edsall spent the night in jail. In the same year auto pioneer Émile Levassor was fatally injured in a French motor race, and a car hit a cyclist in New York City but only broke his leg. The first pedestrian done in by a car in the U.S. was one Henry Bliss, who was helping a woman down off a New York streetcar on September 13, 1899, when he was struck by an electric cab. (Note to the superstitious: September 13 fell on Wednesday that year, not Friday.) Bliss died of his injuries the following day.

By that time cars were already controversial because of the noise they made, the dust they raised, and their speed. This brings us to our second question. According to James Flink's America Adopts the Automobile, 1895-1910, the public demanded regulation in response to newspaper reports of speeding and accidents, and around the turn of the century municipalities began to heed their cries. Flink writes: "Local automobile ordinances were passed, which almost invariably required registration, including the display of an identifying numbered tag on the vehicle, so that an automobilist guilty of speeding or reckless driving could be more easily apprehended." The registration systems also made it easier to assess personal property taxes against car owners. Later, states took over the business of registering cars – it was cumbersome and expensive to register a car in every town that the owner might pass through. Flink notes, "A welter of license plates flapping from the rear end of a fleeing automobile made identification of the car … impossible."

And flee they did. As states passed laws requiring operator's licenses and imposing speed limits, drivers began to evade law enforcement. Initially, avoiding police in a car was easy because the cops didn't have cars themselves. Police tried issuing letters of warning, sent to the address to which the vehicle was registered, but car owners scoffed—Flink says some framed the letters and proudly hung them in their offices. Moreover, many drivers failed to comply with registration requirements; speeders began using bogus license numbers. Goggles with masks concealing the face became popular.

The cops responded by setting up the first speed traps. When the police began stopping vehicles by stringing ropes across roads frequented by speeders, canny drivers mounted cutting blades on the fronts of their vehicles. Police escalated by substituting wire cables for rope, or by throwing logs in the roadway. Automobile clubs responded to such measures by putting up signs warning of speed traps or even posting club representatives, dressed in club colors, along roadsides where police were known to lurk.

Of course, horse-drawn vehicles had been no less dangerous. In Traffic, his recent book on the psychology of driving, Tom Vanderbilt writes that "[i]n 1720, traffic fatalities from 'furiously driven' carts and coaches were named the leading cause of death in London. . . . [I]n the New York of 1867, horses were killing an average of four pedestrians a week." And Maxwell Lay, in his Ways of the World, notes that cars are safer than horses were on an accidents-per-distance-traveled basis.

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Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

References

Byrne, Gay. "The First Person Killed by a Car Was Irish." Irish Independent, September 14, 2008. <http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/news-gossip/the-first-person-killed-by-a-car-was-irish-mary-ward-was-killed-in-offaly-in-1869-when-she-fell-out-of-a-steampowered-car-1475255.html>

Cockayne, Emily. Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England. Yale, 2007.

Flink, James. America Adopts the Automobile, 1895-1910. MIT, 1970.

The Horseless Age, Vol. X (1902). <http://books.google.com/books?id=LnYNhyRSrfsC&pg=PA123&dq=the+automobile+war+on+the+north+shore&ei=dBhPSar-OZDCMqaVgfEG&client=firefox-a>

Irish Universities Promoting Science. "Mary Ward 1827 – 1869." <http://www.universityscience.ie/pages/scientists/sci_mary_ward.php>

Lay, Maxwell. Ways of the World: A History of the World's Roads and the Vehicles That Used Them. Rutgers, 1992.

Labatut, Jean and Wheaton Lane, eds. Highways in Our National Life: A Symposium. Princeton, 1950.

Ladd, Brian. Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age. University of Chicago, 2008.

McQueenie, Kerry. "Road Deaths Remembered." Croydon Guardian, August 13, 2003. <http://www.croydonguardian.co.uk/news/402994.road_deaths_remembered/>

United States DOT Federal Highway Administration. America's Highways 1776-1976. Government Printing Office, 1976.

Vanderbilt, Tom. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). Knopf, 2008.

Watner, Carl. "A Short History of Highway and Vehicle Regulations." The Voluntaryist 92 (1998): 8, 6-7. <http://www.voluntaryist.com/backissues/092.pdf>

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