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American Government Special Collections Reference Desk


The New York Times
June 21, 1903

Dr. Forbes Winslow, the eminent English specialist in brain disorders, announces concurrence in the opinion that the racing motor has given us a new disease, which the medical faculty of Paris has designated "motor intoxication." The English term, speed madness, is perhaps even more accurately descriptive and conveys a much clearer idea of the malady from which those suffer who find no other satisfying pleasure in life than that of being propelled more rapidly than others are able to go. It has been more closely studied in France than elsewhere, probably because in that country the motor vehicle has had greater vogue, and racing records have been of more general interest than they have become in Great Britain. At a recent meeting of the Societé d'Hypnologie et Psychologie M. Hatchet Souplet described the form of intoxication produced by high motor vehicle speeds. The mental and moral states of the chauffeur become abnormal, the change being not unlike that by which Dr. Jekyll was transformed into Mr. Hyde. When the madness has possession of him the chauffeur becomes reckless, vindictive, furiously aggressive, and is swayed and controlled by whatever angry or insane impule seizes him. A high rate of speed works him into the kind of nervous excitation which makes the person suffering from alcoholic stimulation indifferent to the consequences, and eager only to gratify his momentary insane impulse. In England the symptoms are much the same, the chief difference being that the light-hearted and joyous irresponsibility of the French chauffeur gives place to the fierce desire to "kill something" which the typical Englishman finds conducive to happiness. Alcohol does not affect all persons in the same way, and it is not surprising that motor madness makes some persons more brutal than it does others, though perhaps no more dangerous. The man who after running you down will raise his hat and tender a profuse, if somewhat ironical, apology, is perhaps no more fit to be at large than one who will curse you for getting in his way. If a dog bites, it really makes very little difference whether he wags his tail while doing it or only growls.

It is well known that a great many people drink to intoxication without liking the taste of liquor or enjoying the sensation of being drunk. If asked why they do it, they can usually give a reason, which if not satisfactory is at least intelligible. The chauffeur can do the same. Mme. Du Gast of Paris is a typical amateur chauffeur, and enjoys the distinction of being the only woman who has ever driven a motor vehicle in a long-distance race. She does not hesitate to tell all who ask her that she hates automobiles. Her last noteworthy exploit was in managing an eighty-five horse-power Dietrich automobile without assistance in the road race from Versailles to Bordeaux in the abortive and disastrous Paris-Madrid contest. Just before starting she said to a correspondent who had opportunity to interview her:

These motor cars are horrid-smelling, noisy things. Fancy riding about the city in one! I should never think of such a thing. Look at my brougham and my team of bays. That's the way to go about comfortably and it's the only tasteful and elegant mode of locomotion.

Asked why she was about to start in the motor race to Bordeaux if she felt in this way about it, she replied:

Oh, that's very different. I raced to Berlin, and I am going to race to Madrid, because I love the excitement, the exhilaration, and the frenzy that get hold of one when one goes at terrific speed. It's the danger that fascinates me. Just to know that the turn of half an inch of the steering wheel would mean certain death; that, in actual fact, even barring mistakes of driving, death faces one all along the course, where unforseen obstacles may crop up at any moment—that is what I adore in motor racing. Danger attracts me irresistably. I went up in a balloon and down in a mine, where I worked in a shaft for a whole day, just because I wanted to feel the delicious sensation of danger. I find now that motor racing gives me this excitement more than anything else. But as for merely taking a leisurely drive in a horrid, smelly car, I wouldn't think of it.

Here we have the whole matter in a few words. It gives us a clear understanding of what speed madness is and how it affects the victim, up to a certain point. Obviously the sufferer cannot be expected to recognize and describe the distressing mental and moral phenomena which attend it. This would be impossible. It presents itself as a medico-legal problem which the alienist and jurist may advantageously co-operate in studying. It is doubtless curable, but will be most effectively dealt with if treated as a vice rather than as a disease.

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