The long (and accident prone) road to motor regulation

I thought that we might take a break from 19th century history this week and look at something from around a hundred years ago.

My wife, Tammy Goriely, has been doing some work on the regulation of self-driving cars and this has inspired her to look at how driving was regulated in the past.

The growth of motoring in Britain

The first motor car to appear on British roads was a Panhard et Levassor which the Hon. Evelyn Ellis imported into Britain in June 1895. He obviously started a fashion: by the end of the year there were 14 or 15 cars on the roads – a figure which had increased dramatically by 1900 to over 700.

The first motor cars were restricted to a walking pace by the notorious Red Flag Act (the Locomotive Act of 1865) which required a person carrying a red flag to walk in front of any self-propelled vehicles. (The law was designed to cover steam powered vehicles like fairground tractors.) ln 1896, this was replaced by a speed limit of 14 miles an hour, raised to 20 miles an hour in 1903.

By the end of the 1920s there were almost a million cars (and around a million trucks and motorcycles) in Britain. Inevitably, the number of people killed on the road became a cause for concern.

Increasing road deaths

There had always been road deaths, of course. In 1909, 1,070 people had been killed on the roads, with over half of collisions involving horse drawn vehicles. That is a very similar proportionately to the level of road deaths in 2019 (around 27 per million population).

However, increases in the number of motor vehicles on the roads led to an escalation in deaths. In 1928, almost 6,000 people died on the roads – of which over 5,000 involved collisions with motor cars.  Road deaths had reached the astonishing rate of 134 per million people.

The Royal Commission on Transport

Against this background of rapidly increasing road deaths, a Royal Commission on Transport was set up, reporting in 1929.

Sir Arthur Griffith Boscawen, former Conservative politician and Chairman of the Royal Commission

When looking at historical change, there is a natural tendency to think in terms of dramatic turning points: the change from the Tudors to the Stuarts; the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. So the Royal Commission on Transport is seen as a pivotal moment in our response to the motor car. It was no such thing. It was a flawed document reflecting the situation at the time and some (often hilariously mistaken) notions of how road transport would develop. Some of its recommendations stuck, such as compulsory insurance and a Highway Code. Others were later reversed (such as its rejection of speed limits and driving tests). 

Speed limits

The big problem in 1929 was that the 20 miles an hour speed limit set in the Motor Car Act 1903 was widely disregarded. Nor did people abide by the 10 or 12 miles an hour limits imposed in many towns and villages.

Enforcing speed limits placed a considerable burden on the police. It had also led to clashes between the police and upper-class motorists. As the Police Journal put it in 1928: “with the general advent of the motor car, the police have been put in the position of disciplining the general public, to an extent almost unprecedented.”

Motoring organisations called for an end to speed limits. In 1927, 92% of the 100,000 AA members who replied to a questionnaire favoured abolition. Motoring organisations argued that the real problem was not speed or the technical inadequacies of steering and brakes but “road hogs”. This Toad of Toad Hall character crops up in all discussions of early motoring as the villain of the piece.

The Commission accepted the motoring organisations’ arguments. They recommended removing all speed limits. Speed limits were to be replaced by greater penalties for dangerous driving by the small minority of motorists who caused problems.

Many in London disagreed. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police advocated a 35 mile an hour limit in London. Metropolitan Magistrates commented:

The suggestion, in plain language, amounts to this: that individuals for their personal benefit should be allowed to drive through the streets of the Metropolis at a speed often exceeding the rate of an express train.

The 1930 Road Traffic Act abolished the 20 miles an hour speed limit. However, local authorities could apply to the Minister of Transport for a speed limit on a particularly dangerous stretch of road.

Following the 1930 Act, fatalities continued to climb, reaching a peak of 7,155 in 1934. The Government rowed back. The Road Traffic Act 1934 imposed a 30 mile an hour limit for built up areas.  

Highway Code

The Commission noted the antagonism between drivers and members of the public. To introduce a new spirit of co-operation between road users, the Commission recommended a new “Code of Customs”, to be drawn up the Ministry.

We are confident that everybody on the road will play the game, but the rules of the game must be settled first.

The Commission attached “very great importance” to such a code and suggested that every licence holder should be given a free copy. Thus Toad was to be sent firmly back to Toad Hall!

Driving licences and tests

In 1929, you could obtain a driving licence by paying 5 shillings and showing identification. The only requirement was to be over 17 (or 14 for motorcycles). As the Commission commented: “there is nothing to prevent a totally blind man obtaining a licence if he applies for one.” Action was clearly needed so the Commission recommended that applicants should make a declaration that they were not suffering from a disease or disability. That should sort it!

Many countries had introduced compulsory driving tests, but the AA and RAC were opposed, commenting that tests were of “very doubtful practical utility and the source of considerable expense”. Rather the chief requisite was road sense, “which can only be acquired on the road itself”. The Commission agreed: “with regards to knowledge and experience, no test could be effective.”

Again, when faced with further escalations in road deaths, the Ministry of Transport reversed the policy. Driving tests for new drivers were introduced by the Road Traffic Act 1934, with the first compulsory tests taking place in June 1935.

Compulsory insurance

The Royal Commission most important idea was to recommend compulsory insurance against personal injury to third parties. During oral evidence, the Chairman pressed representatives for the Ministry of Transport on the issue, noting that motor car ownership was changing. As he put it, “People of little means buy cars, possibly on the hire purchase system, and they may do an enormous amount of damage.” The price of cars was falling rapidly, with new mass-produced models such as the Austin Seven and Morris Minor. Moreover, there was now a thriving market in second-hand cars. Motoring was (to his horror) within the reach of the middle-classes.

A 1928 Morris Minor (possibly bought by ‘people of modest means’ who didn’t deserve cars)

The Chairman cited the case of a boy crippled for life who was awarded substantial damages but the driver “could not find a penny”. Civil servants were sent to enquire how compulsory motor insurance worked in other jurisdictions, including Massachusetts, Denmark and New Zealand. The Commission was particularly impressed by the New Zealand Act and suggested something similar.

Other ideas

There were many other ideas to improve traffic. Some had long-term effects. For example, the Commission called for standardising road signs, to replace signs erected by private individuals. They also increased the age for a motorcycle licence from 14 to 16.

Other ideas, however, were rejected out of hand. One was for speed “humps”, to “alter the level of the roads in dangerous places to compel motorists to slow down”. The Commission thought the idea risible. It was “universally condemned”. Uneven road surfaces were bad enough, so why would anyone deliberately make the surface worse?

Technology to the rescue

The most exciting part of the Commission’s work were visits to busy crossings in Manchester and Wolverhampton to see the new “automatic signal lights”. Red lights turned to green, with “the changeover worked automatically by an electrical contrivance”. Similar devices were soon to be erected in London, at Baker Street and Albert Gate. The Commission noted that they would save considerable police resources.

Then, as now, automation and new technology were seen as the answer to dangerous roads. As Tammy wrestles with the regulation of self-driving cars, she can’t help but wonder if history is repeating itself or if the Law Commissions’ Automated Vehicles: Joint Report (January 2022) will be viewed as a significant improvement on the 1929 Royal Commission.


This is a cruelly edited (by me) version of a draft paper I am trying to persuade Tammy to publish somewhere where it will be properly appreciated. The photograph of a 1928 Morris Minor is by Malcolm Asquith and used with permission.