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The roads have never been safe places: you could be kicked by a horse, clipped by a "scorching" cyclist or crushed by a tram. In the early 1900s, though, a new danger appeared, the motor car. Their drivers came with a new idea, too: that no-one else had any right to be on the road. As early as 1906, William Massey told MPs that "motor cars had become, through reckless driving, a dangerous nuisance". Wellington drivers were reported to be "racing" at "terrific speed", crossing intersections "like a flash" and threatening to dash pedestrians "to a pulp".
By present-day standards these early cars were difficult to drive well, with inaccurate steering and poor brakes, which were often on the rear wheels only; their drivers were often reluctant to change gear, and claimed that it was difficult and unsafe to maintain slow speeds. Cars were especially dangerous in wet weather: asphalted surfaces were greasy, tyres were narrow and had little grip, and well into the 1920s many cars lacked windscreen wipers. Historians have pointed out "It is difficult to think of another technology that has ... had such an impact on human life and death without having been intentionally designed to cause harm."
By 1930, the Otago Daily Times rued that "All communities seem to have too passively acquiesced in the gradual introduction of a new menace to life and limb which might be likened to a Frankenstein monster out of control."
Who was at the wheel of these monsters? The Motor Hog, "the hooligan type of motorist". The original "road hogs" were cyclists, but the term was quickly applied to motorcyclists and to drivers of motor cars by about 1905. They were said to take a "malevolent delight at seeing the ‘scatteration’ which follows the toot of [their] horn" and were callously indifferent to the fate of those not nimble or quick enough to get out of their way.
Reports from Europe and the United States prepared New Zealanders for the prospect of the heartless plutocrat on the highway. In England, "Some of the worst offenders ride in the smartest and most expensive cars". The nouveau riche were singled out, their sudden wealth having allegedly led to a decline in moral standards. The most egregious instance of this was the reluctance of motorists to stop after an accident, what would by the mid-1920s be called a hit-and-run incident.
The first fatalities caused by motor vehicles came in 1906, prompting "vigorous letters" to the press "clamouring for the suppression or the annihilation of motorists" which "represent a long-nurtured hatred come to the point of boiling over ... most people who do not drive motor-cars are tinctured more or less with a sentiment ranging from doubt and disapproval to positive hatred". The Evening Post thought in Wellington, "to the average person the reckless motorist is his Satanic Majesty incarnate". Not to be outdone, the Free Lance declared the "motor bounder ... a complete savage ... he surges along, a very Juggernaut, careless apparently of what may happen. His hooting abomination exudes the vilest perfume, he usually observes no rule of the road, and he is a law unto himself ..."Resentment at the selfishness of these "motor fiends", their carelessness and blatant display of wealth, was thought to be encouraging the growth of socialism.
Pedestrians, it was frequently asserted, had as much right to use the streets as anyone else. Yet motorists complained that they had no serious purpose being there, wandering aimlessly across the street or using it as an impromptu venue for conversations with friends. When urged to move on, pedestrians were inclined to become obstreperous or abusive. Motorists were the sort of people accustomed to having their demands receive prompt attention, and often seemed surprised that hooting at pedestrians only raised their hackles. One complained in 1917 that on encountering a Salvation Army meeting in progress in the central square of Palmerston North, "Although I tooted the horn continuously and tried to get a passage through the crowd, not one of these street loafers, for they are nothing else, attempted to move until, forced by cramped space, I had to run the car straight at them. Then they moved, but with such injured looks that I wondered if the streets had been sold, and I was unaware that these individuals had purchased them."
A frequent complaint of motorists was that pedestrians behaved like startled rabbits when faced by an approaching car: "Fair Play", who presumably did not choose his pseudonym ironically, thought "anyone with only the ordinary amount of commonsense must know that, once a pedestrian starts hesitating, and dodges both ways, the car or cycle must run into them ..."
Many school committees and residents’ associations appealed to local councils and motorists’ associations for help in reducing the danger to children from motorists. Warning signs were the usual response, though they had only limited effect. One ambiguously worded sign in Petone, reading "Motorists Beware of Schoolchildren", "caused a good deal of amusement in motoring circles ... What particular form of devilry the schoolchildren are hatching against motorists has yet to be determined".
The situation was thought so serious by 1927 that an accident insurance scheme for schoolchildren was proposed to the national Education Department. When this was discussed in Parliament, Sir Thomas Mackenzie thought things were "coming to a pretty pass when children could not pass along the streets in safety".
A few years later, an attempt to form an Anti-Road Hog League in imitation of those in Britain and Australia foundered when its organiser was prosecuted for fraud. From time to time the lack of a pedestrians’ association was lamented, as it "would do much to counteract the influence of the automobile associations".
One of the main concerns of motorists’ organisations was to stop children playing on the streets. A reader wrote to the Evening Post lampooning motorists’ complaints: they "display a lack of consideration for the unfortunate motorist. The little beggars don’t seem to care how often they cause you to swerve your car in order to avoid running them down ... some of them actually run across your path just for the pleasure of it. I suppose the little wretches enjoy the thrills and hairbreadth escapes ... The young blighters only seem to appreciate the joy of being alive; of being able to run about and play like a lot of puppies." Indeed, children did enjoy throwing stones at passing cars, and some tried to poke sticks between the spokes of their wheels.
As New Zealand’s population was relatively small — it had reached one million only in 1908 — the proportion of serious road accidents was masked by the low absolute numbers. Foreign visitors sometimes remarked how casually or lightly road deaths were taken. Nonetheless, increasing public anxiety at the rapid increase in deaths was evident as World War 1 neared its end. The forthright medical superintendent of the Christchurch public hospital was a prominent critic of reckless motorists, drawing attention to the recent "truly alarming" increase in accidents. Dr Walter Fox pointed out that as early as August 1918 more accidents were caused by motor traffic than all other causes combined. He told an inquest "I would have all these men who were convicted of inconsiderate driving conscripted ... If they want to kill people, let them go and kill Huns." Were it not for traffic accidents, Dr Fox claimed in 1920 his hospital "accident ward would be closed down at times".
Trams were a particular concern of early motorists. The lines typically ran along the centre of streets, the electric wires suspended from poles in the middle. These power poles were seen as a hazard to motor traffic. Passengers waited for trams beside the tracks, where they were vulnerable to being hit by careless motorists. Refuges were provided, protected by bollards and typically edged with a low concrete kerb. Incompetent car drivers hit these, too. Tram passengers were in greater danger crossing to and from the pavement. Motorists’ organisations tried to propagate the notion that trams were archaic and would soon be replaced by motor buses, so the impediments to the free movement of motor cars could be done away with. Tram passengers were not safe even from normally slow-moving vehicles. Stepping off a tram and about to cross a suburban street in 1917, an Auckland woman was hit by a hearse "travelling very fast".
Defined crossings for pedestrians remained rare well into the 1920s. Lines were painted across busy central Auckland streets in 1923 to mark crossing places for pedestrians, and initially policemen were stationed nearby to ensure they were used. However, traffic was not compelled to give way, so pedestrians saw them as no safer than crossing anywhere else. One, presumably an old soldier, suggested each street corner should have a machine gun and a supply of hand grenades and flame throwers so those wishing to cross could keep the cars at bay. Motorists and tram drivers habitually ignored pedestrian crossings with impunity: on revisiting Auckland in 1936, someone accustomed to British practice wondered "whether crossings here are for pedestrians’ safety or motorists’, for I see motor-cars swish through the stream of pedestrians willy-nilly ... What are they really for?"
A concerted programme of safety campaigns was begun by the motoring organisations in 1926. A nationwide "Safety First" week aimed at both motorists and pedestrians was promoted with stickers and pamphlets, safety films and lantern slides, and talks on the wireless. One Auckland newspaper, rather tastelessly, dubbed this "a Dominion-wide ‘Don’t get killed’ publicity campaign". The precedents were not encouraging. A "Safety First" week had been tried in Auckland in 1920 to little effect. Motorists attached to their cars’ windscreens warning notices "in polite language, that anyone who steps off a footpath on to the road with his eyes shut or his nose in the air, is in danger of being knocked over by a motor". Some pedestrians unsurprisingly took umbrage, seeing these exhortations as an insult. One newspaper columnist thought the notices would be better on the inside than the outside of the windscreen, with messages such as "Time saved on top speed may be lost in carrying an injured pedestrian to the hospital". Such stickers may have proved counter-productive, if the widely reported case of an English motorist fined £5 for dangerous driving is anything to go by. Asked by the judge why she ran down a man in broad daylight, she explained her windscreen "was almost completely obscured with ‘Safety First’ stickers".
In Britain, the National "Safety First" Association’s road safety campaign had been "stigmatised as an insidious attempt to throw the onus of taking care on to pedestrians", but the local equivalent seems to have elicited a less cynical response in New Zealand. The Auckland Automobile Association hoped to check the "gross carelessness" of some drivers and approved of heavier penalties for traffic offences, though it did not want responsible drivers to be "penalised by irksome by-laws", "harassing restrictions" or "absurd speed limits".
Radio broadcasts on road safety appear to have been monopolised by motoring interests. The contents of these talks are mostly lost, but a few were reprinted by newspapers. "Chassis", the motoring columnist of The Sun in Christchurch, broadcast a talk in 1927. He praised the motoring organisations for their concern for road safety, and placed much of the blame for accidents on pedestrians’ "total disregard" for the danger posed by motor vehicles. Only the vigilance of motorists saved the majority from serious injury or death as a consequence of their own carelessness. The "total abandon" of pedestrians, "Chassis" lamented, "makes motoring a nightmare". He claimed the "spineless" local authorities were "scared to death to make any by-laws governing the pedestrian" while "the motorist is bound and gagged by laws, by-laws, and regulations and thou shall nots". How this talk went down with the radio listeners, most of them pedestrians, was not recorded.
- Assoc Prof Alex Trapeznik teaches courses in Russian history and world history at the University of Otago. Austin Gee is a Dunedin historian who edits the newsletter of the Otago Settlers’ Association.