15 Early Driving Etiquette and Safety Rules We Should Bring Back

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In the early days of the automobile, traffic laws were largely nonexistent—the first traffic code in the world wasn’t adopted until New York laid down rules in 1903. In place of widely-accepted traffic legislation, etiquette and traffic safety experts established recommendations for drivers to not only be polite to their fellow drivers (and passengers), but to also keep everyone safe on the road. Here are 15 of these early rules we’d be wise to remember today.

1. Dress the part. 

When driving became popularized at the turn of the 20th century, you couldn’t just jump in the car and go. First, you had to properly outfit yourself. The window-, door-, and roof-less designs of early automobiles required passengers to don specialized motoring suits for even the briefest trips, lest they arrive at their destination covered in grime and soot. A driving outfit consisted of a long coat or duster, head covering, gloves, and goggles. Some women even favored veils that resembled beekeeper hats in order to keep their faces clean.

But the outfit wasn’t just practical, it was also a show of decorum. An etiquette guide written for chauffeurs in the 1950s dictates that all drivers must wear a white shirt and collar with a black tie, black shoes, and brown leather driving gloves.

2. Don’t be a road hog—or a road pig. 

It remains good driving practice today to share the road with other drivers as well as cyclists. But a 1922 etiquette guide also harped on the crimes of a “road pig.” Far worse than taking up more than one’s fair share of the road, this etiquette expert proclaimed, was picnicking along the side of it and leaving your rubbish behind.

3. At least three people were required to operate the vehicle.

As much about safety as about etiquette, the United Kingdom’s 1865 Locomotive Act (also known as the Red Flag Act) stipulated that at least three people must be present during all road trips: one to drive, a stoker, and one person to walk in front of the vehicle with a red flag and lantern. The flag-bearer not only signaled the car’s arrival to oncoming carriages and pedestrians, but also kept the car from reaching dangerous speeds (or much of any speed at all). While such a rule may not make sense today, it would still behoove drivers to take a co-pilot along for the ride to share duties in the case of emergency or drowsiness.

4. When having visitors, the host must arrange for them to be picked up from the station. 

1920s decorum also mandated that a host should help arrange transportation for her out-of-town guests. Should the guests arrive by train or boat, the host should send a driver to pick them up at the station. If no driver is available, the host is responsible for covering the cost of public transportation or a taxi.

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5. The driver should refrain from drinking—as should the passengers.

It’s a matter of law that intoxicated people must refrain from getting behind the steering wheel, but a 1906 guide to motoring etiquette took things one step further. You also should not take intoxicants if you are being driven by your chauffeur, as chance may force you into the driver’s seat. In fact, when hiring your chauffeur, it’s recommended you seek out a man who does not drink at all. Today, designated drivers and taxis are the saving grace of the inebriated, but it raises a good point: In the event of emergency, it’s a good idea to have more than one sober person in the car.

6. Chauffeurs must be polite to their passengers. 

Speaking of chauffeurs, a 1950 guide to their behavior states that they must touch their caps upon opening the car doors for their passengers and then wait until everyone is properly situated before taking their seats. While chauffeurs have largely gone by the wayside, it wouldn’t hurt for drivers today to show their passengers a bit more respect—they are their guests, after all.

7. Use the horn sparingly.

City drivers and those prone to road rage would be wise to heed the advice of one 1906 guide to vehicle etiquette: Do not make too liberal use of the horn. It’s annoying and confusing.

8. Make sure your car isn’t emitting nasty smells or smoke. 

Your car is your temple, so it’s best to keep it healthy and tidy. As a 1906 guide indicates, it takes just a little care to ensure your exhaust pipe is clean and your car is not dripping oil that may damage asphalt pavements.

9. Show care and compassion in the event of an accident—even if it’s not your fault! 

1906 automobile etiquette also dictates that you show the utmost kindness and consideration to the other party involved in any accidents. If you’re in the wrong, accept responsibility and give your name and address to those you’ve harmed. If you are not at fault for the accident, it’s best that you act compassionately toward the offender even while you establish your guiltlessness.

Today, insurance companies have their own set of recommendations for how to deal with an accident. While it’s always good to be considerate and respectful in high-pressure situations such as these, it’s now recommended that you don’t admit fault or reveal your policy limits to anyone. 

10. Extend your compassion to injured animals.

Should your victim be an animal, early 20th century etiquette (and common decency) mandates you help it just as you would a person (well, maybe you don’t have to give the deer your address.)

11. Don’t overburden your driver. 

A 1927 newspaper advice column outlining etiquette for motor guests on road trips suggests you check with your driving friend about how much space there will be for your luggage in the car. Don’t assume there will be room for your four suitcases and hatbox—especially if there are three other passengers.

12. Be punctual. 

As with all appointments and engagements, it’s polite to be on time when meeting with a friend who so graciously offered you a ride. That 1927 newspaper column points out that arriving late is not only frustrating, it may also throw off the driver’s timetable and therefore delay your arrival at your destination. Passengers today who practice a lackadaisical approach to punctuality would do well to heed this advice.

13. Keep chatter to a minimum. 

In the 1920s, it was believed a good passenger was seen and not heard. Not only is “ceaseless chatter” irritating to the driver, but it causes the driver to realize “that the country through which they are driving is of little interest to the guest.”

14. Have a map and handwritten directions handy. 

While asking for directions when you got lost on the road wasn’t considered rude back in 1954, it was considered a hassle—and unreliable. Instead of depending on the kindness of strangers to find your way, a 1954 road safety film recommended clearly marking your route on a map before you hit the road and keeping a list of directions handy as you drive. While GPS systems and smartphones make navigation easier than ever, it’s still a good idea to also keep a paper map and directions in your car, just in case technology fails you.

15. Maintain good posture while driving. 

The 1950s also made it known to drivers that sitting straight with your head up while behind the wheel will keep you alert and help fight fatigue, therefore helping you safely cover more ground in less time.