Ridiculous U.K. Traffic Laws of Yore

Scott Barbour/Getty Images (London To Brighton Veteran Car Rally)
Scott Barbour/Getty Images (London To Brighton Veteran Car Rally) / Scott Barbour/Getty Images (London To Brighton Veteran Car Rally)

In the 19th-century United Kingdom, driving a horseless carriage was a huge pain. The "Locomotive Acts" passed in 1865 by the British Parliament set out a series of legal restrictions for drivers, mostly aimed at keeping the road safe for horses, horse-driven carriages, and pedestrians—and restricting horseless carriages severely. For instance, one provision set the speed limit at 2 miles per hour within towns; another required a person to walk in front of the vehicle waving a red flag...at all times. The latter requirement earned the restrictions the nickname "red flag laws."

While these laws arguably made some sense in 1865—to prevent steam-powered vehicles from going wild on dirt roads and paths primarily trafficked by horses—they weren't relaxed until 1896. This forced early drivers (in the 1890s) to jump through bizarre hoops, or simply give up and use a horse. Below is selected text from the law, broken into parts, with emphasis added. You'll notice that this is written to deal with steam engines, but also applied to any conveyance that wasn't powered by animals—this pointed squarely at internal combustion engines.

Summary of the Awfulness

You could drive a steam-powered carriage or motorcar, provided you brought two friends with you, one of whom was walking in front waving a red flag. You could only go 4 miles an hour, unless you were in town, in which case you'd reduce to 2 mph (slower than walking). You had to stop if anyone with a horse coming the other way held up a hand. You had to post your name and address on the vehicle.

Firstly, "Waggon" Math

"Every Locomotive propelled by Steam or any other than Animal Power on any Turnpike Road or public Highway shall be worked according to the following Rules and Regulations; viz."

"Firstly, at least Three Persons shall be employed to drive or conduct such Locomotive, and if more than Two Waggons or Carriages be attached thereto, an additional Person shall be employed, who shall take charge of such Waggons or Carriages."

Secondly, the Red Flag Silliness

"Secondly, one of such Persons, while any Locomotive is in Motion, shall precede such Locomotive on Foot by not less than Sixty Yards, and shall carry a Red Flag constantly displayed, and shall warn the Riders and Drivers of Horses of the Approach of such Locomotives, and shall signal the Driver thereof when it shall be necessary to stop, and shall assist Horses, and Carriages drawn by Horses, passing the same."

Fourthly (Because the Thirdly Part was Boring)

"Fourthly, the Whistle of such Locomotive shall not be sounded for any Purpose whatever; nor shall the Cylinder Taps be opened within Sight of any Person riding, driving, leading, or in charge of a Horse upon the Road; nor shall the Steam be allowed to attain a Pressure such as to exceed the Limit fixed by the Safety Valve, so that no Steam shall blow off when the Locomotive is upon the Road."

Fifthly, Stop Constantly

"Fifthly, every such Locomotive shall be instantly stopped, on the Person preceding the same, or any other Person with a Horse, or a Carriage drawn by a Horse, putting up his Hand as a Signal to require such Locomotive to be stopped."

Sixthly, Headlights

"Sixthly, any Person in charge of any such Locomotive shall provide Two efficient Lights to be affixed conspicuously, One at each Side on the Front of the same, between the Hours of One Hour after Sunset and One Hour before Sunrise."

The Speed Limit: 4 Miles Per Hour on the Highway; 2 in Town

Later in the law, this gem pops up:

"...It shall not be lawful to drive any such Locomotive along any Turnpike Road or public Highway at a greater Speed than Four Miles an Hour, or through any City, Town, or Village at a greater Speed than Two Miles an Hour...."

This is consistent given that there'd be a guy walking in front of the vehicle on the road; 4 mph is a brisk walk.

Your Address is Your License Plate

And then there's this:

"The Name and Residence of the Owner of every Locomotive shall be affixed thereto in a conspicuous Manner."

Let the Emancipation Run Begin!

Because these laws stifled innovation in motorcars, many internal combustion enthusiasts despised them. When the laws were effectively repealed in 1896 (for instance, raising the speed limit to 14 mph and eliminating the red flag requirement), an "Emancipation Run" marked the occasion. On November 14, 1896, dozens of motorcar fans tore a red flag in half and set off in their cars from London on the road to Brighton. This later became an annual tradition. (The 2005 London To Brighton Veteran Car Rally is pictured above, top of the article, courtesy of Getty Images.)

Read the Rest

The legal text above is from The Statutes of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 28 pages 101-102, in case you enjoy reading such things.