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American Government Special Collections Reference Desk


The New York Times
April 28, 1900

Experience with the bicycle having shown very clearly that the average human being is so constituted that he has an insatiable passion for high speed which makes it extremely distasteful to him to go slow when he can possibly go fast, the public welfare would seem to demand that the right to use the streets for mechanically propelled vehicles should be restricted to those equipped with regulating devices which would make it impossible to run them beyond the statutory speed limit.

The advent of the bicyclist created new conditions.  The nearer the bicycle comes to the standard of a racing machine the more popular it is.  A few staid or elderly persons ride carefully from natural caution or natural timidity, but the great majority of bicycle riders are young and athletic, and love to "scorch" because of the pleasure and exhilaration of moving at high speed.  Probably very few of those arrested and fined for reckless bicycle riding mean to violate the law, but they "just can't help it."  A clear space ahead and no policeman in sight offers an almost irresistible temptation to "spurt."

Now comes the automobile.  It appeals to the popular fancy because capable of propulsion at high speed, without serious risk of injury to itself, and certainly without discomfort to the inanimate propelling power.  Makers of automobiles advertise them as racing machines, evidently realizing that they would have very little interest for most people who ride in their own vehicles if they could not be driven at high velocity when the conditions seem to permit.  International races are organized to establish the fact that, in the hands of experts, railway speeds may be attained on ordinary roads.  The best automobile seems to be the one which will cover most ground in the least time, with the least injury from wear and tear.  That this is what most people want is evident from the fact that a slow and safe automobile would be as undesirable, from the viewpoint of the buyer, as a Percheron draught horse for pleasure driving.  Even those who expect to ride slowly and cautiously, and to keep safely within the law as to street speed, want to know that they can go faster than other people if they choose to.  In this knowledge lies the danger; from it comes irresistible temptation.  Any observant person who will take his stand in mid-block on any one of our macadamized or asphalted avenues on a pleasant afternoon will see a great deal of perhaps unconscious automobile "scorching."  Given a clear road—or one that for the moment appears to be clear—and a reserve of power which can be called into action by moving a lever, and the man who can resist the temptation to make his machine leap forward at a rate fairly comparable to the Empire State Express is capable of great self-restraint.  The oftener this perfectly natural temptation is yielded to the more firmly is the scorching habit established.  It grows unconsciously, and becomes a grave public nuisance before we realize it.

A warning of what to expect in the matter comes from Paris and from the towns and villages near enough to that capital to be reached by motor vehicles, where there is just now an outburst of indignant public protest against automobiles from people who do not own them, coupled with demands for measures of protection for foot passengers which are somewhat extravagant—such, for example, as cutting trenches across roads at the entrances to towns and villages to force automobiles to slow down, suspending chains which cannot be passed, erecting gates at intervals, and other vexatious expedients.  The chauffeurs have become so reckless, and are knocking foot passengers about at such a rate, that vigorous measures are demanded for the protection of life and limb.  We do not need experience to teach us that something more than a municipal ordinance fixing the maximum speed at which motor vehicles may be propelled is needed to prevent the growth of an evil which, when once grown, will defy suppression or regulation.  Our suggestion is that every automobile in New York shall be registered and licensed, and that the conditions of such license be that it be fitted with an automobile governor, by means of which, when a certain speed is reached, the power is cut off or a brake applied, or both, thus rendering a velocity exceeding that allowed by law impossible.  Mechanically, this suggestion is entirely practical.  To use a motor vehicle without such a governor could be made a misdemeanor, entailing penalties sufficiently serious to discourage violations of the law which, if charged, could be established or disproved without difficulty.  The principle of the governor is too old, and its applications too well established in this "state of the art," to make such a requirement necessarily tributary in royalties to any one.  It would inconvenience only those who wish to break the law, and would be a safeguard and protection for those who do so involuntarily and unconsciously.

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