Where the road toll started

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Despite Thailand having (almost) the worst road toll in the world, the deaths on the road didn’t start here. There was little more than a handful of petrol cars in Britain when Bridget Driscoll, 44, took a trip to the Crystal Palace, south-east London, on 17 August 1896. She could be forgiven for being bewildered by Arthur Edsall’s imported Roger-Benz which was part of a motoring exhibition taking place as she attended a Catholic League of the Cross fete with her 16 year-old daughter, May, and a friend.

At the inquest, Florence Ashmore, a domestic servant, gave evidence that the car went at a ‘tremendous pace’, like a fire engine – ‘as fast as a good horse could gallop’.

On the other side, the driver, working for the Anglo-French Motor Co, said that he was doing 4 mph when he killed Mrs Driscoll and that he had rung his bell and shouted.

One of Mr Edsall’s two passengers during the exhibition ride, Ellen Standing, told the inquest she heard the driver shout “stand back” and then the car swerved.

Mrs Driscoll had hesitated in front of the car and seemed “bewildered” before being hit, the inquest heard.

Edsall had been driving only three weeks at the time and – with no license requirement – had been given no instruction as to which side of the road to keep to (very similar to some of the drivers in Pattaya).

With conflicting reports about the speed and manner of Mr Edsall’s driving, the jury returned an accidental death verdict.

Nonetheless, the National Motor Museum’s libraries officer Patrick Collins admits there was “quite a lot of anti-car feeling” in the UK at the time. “A lot of people didn’t want drivers running around the country scaring horses,” he explained, adding that there were fewer than 20 petrol cars in Britain at the time.

These first cars were subject to strict safety laws which had been designed for steam locomotives weighing up to 12 tonnes. Each vehicle was expected to have a team of three in control; the driver, the fireman – to stoke the engine – and the flagman, whose job was to walk 60 yards in front waving a red flag to warn horse-drawn traffic of the machine’s approach.

The flag requirement was ditched in 1865 and the walking distance reduced to 20 yards, although speed limits of 2 mph in towns and 4 mph in the country remained in place.

Mrs Driscoll died just a few weeks after a new Parliamentary act – designed for the new and lighter petrol, electricity and steam-driven cars – raised the speed limit to 14 mph, while the flagman role was scrapped altogether.

The coroner told her inquest that he hoped hers would be the last death in this sort of accident. Little did he know how times would change over the following century, with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents estimating more than 550,000 people have been killed on Britain’s roads since then (and Thailand’s road traffic accident experience is even worse).