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G. Wayne Miller

How did cops measure speed in early 1900s?

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Hi, again,

In writing my next book, about the U.S. car industry in the 1890 - 1908 time frame, I find repeated reference in old publications to speed limits and police arresting violators. Nowhere, however, do I see any description of how the police clocked violators. Obviously, no radar at that time.

Does anyone know how a foot, bicycle or car cop could measure another vehicle's speed?

Please send responses to G. Wayne Miller

Thanks!

Wayne Miller, pascoagwriter@yahoo.com

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I'd imagine quite like local police do now. Clock the time it takes a vehicle to travel a known distance. I have a book, I think from 1958, called "sportsman like driving" which has some sections in early traffic laws. I'll see if I can find it tonight and see if there is any reference worth while for you.

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Also -- does anyone know what the "Golden Rule of the Road" was in 1905? I have found a reference to that in a New York Times story about the January 1905 Automobile Club of America annual banquet, when club president D. H. Morris echoed the theme -- and made an observation about the relationship of politics and economic that would prove true.

“At first we were looked upon merely as sporting enthusiasts -- children with a toy,” he said. “Legislators, though still attacking the great industry, do it timidly, for they are beginning to feel the power of the new force, the thousands of voters who own and are yet to own automobiles. We strive for the development of the automobile into a low-priced and perfected machine for the rapid and efficient transportation of man and merchandise, for the building and maintenance of good roads, for the enactment and enforcement of salutary and reasonable laws, for the carrying out of the Golden Rule of the road, and for the punishment of those offending the written and unwritten laws.”

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Thanks! also -- see this reply I just posted, maybe you can help there, too.

Also -- does anyone know what the "Golden Rule of the Road" was in 1905? I have found a reference to that in a New York Times story about the January 1905 Automobile Club of America annual banquet, when club president D. H. Morris echoed the theme -- and made an observation about the relationship of politics and economic that would prove true.

“At first we were looked upon merely as sporting enthusiasts -- children with a toy,” he said. “Legislators, though still attacking the great industry, do it timidly, for they are beginning to feel the power of the new force, the thousands of voters who own and are yet to own automobiles. We strive for the development of the automobile into a low-priced and perfected machine for the rapid and efficient transportation of man and merchandise, for the building and maintenance of good roads, for the enactment and enforcement of salutary and reasonable laws, for the carrying out of the Golden Rule of the road, and for the punishment of those offending the written and unwritten laws.”

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Oh, I have some Penn traffic law books from the 1950's I think, and maybe a AAA guide or too. If I can dig them up, they might still reference laws from earlier times. Sorry I don't have much actually from the period, but maybe it would provide some leads to chase down if you're interested.

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In the very early days the police were actually considered to be expert witnesses. When in court if the officer said you were speeding then you were speeding and the judge passed verdict accordingly. Most of the cars did not have speedometers so why would the cops need one?

Speeding was not a new violation with the coming of cars. Municipalities had speeding laws that were enforced against ridden horses and horse drawn vehicles often by police on foot patrol.

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I thought they had two poles, or 'speed markers' at the side of the road, maybe a hundred feet apart, and the authorities would clock how many seconds it took the vehicle to travel from the first one to the second, not unlike the much later airplane-patrol markings on a highway. In the early 1900's, the speed limits were usually 7-10 mph in a small town and 100 feet could easily be measured in seconds.

Craig

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Using a stopwatch may still be done in some municipalities. I had a friend get a ticket from a police officer using a stopwatch and a measured distance between two parking meters in 1978. The ticket was for something like 31 in a 25 zone, which was ridiculous even then given the short distance between the two meters

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That method is still commonly used in PA. Local police paint 2 lines across the road at a given spacing and time folks, since radar can only be used by the State Police.

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Guest BillP

"You must have been to be speeding, I had to go go eighty just to catch you!"

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45 years ago the PA Turnpike had clocks prominently displayed at their toll booths. I had a Summer job at one end of a 150 mile stretch and a girlfriend at the other. Every Friday evening I made the trip. Knowing the time I passed thru the first toll booth and exited at the last and the distance it was easy to calculate my average speed for the 150 miles. More than once it was over 75 mph. Hey, I was young and she was pretty, what can I say?

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The reminds me of my 9.5 hour trip from Atlanta to Harrisburg with similar motivation.

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I have once saw a plaque attached to the rear of a circa 1908 Lozier that stated "WARNING TO POLICE. This automobile is equip with a JONES SPEEDOMETER. The driver knows how fast he is traveling."

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Amazing how raging hormones can cause a guy to do irrational things. That's quite a feat from Atlanta to Harrisburg!

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Route 66 in the Bloomington, Il. Area in the 50's there were some areas the signs read REASONABLE and PROPER.

It was a gudgement call by the officer, and often they would chase a car to determine if they were speeding in areas where speed limit signs were present.

Dale in IndyIndy

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Route 66 in the Bloomington, Il. Area in the 50's there were some areas the signs read REASONABLE and PROPER.

It was a gudgement call by the officer, and often they would chase a car to determine if they were speeding in areas where speed limit signs were present.

Dale in IndyIndy

Back in those days I had a '53 Jag roadster and my best friend had a Healy 100, we were going to Bloomington for a wedding. The speed limit in Illinois back then was reasonable and proper. Sunday morning on 66, clear & sunny and no traffic. We were cruising at about 100 mph and passed a state highway patrol car, no problem, we were perfectly legal. Now if it was raining or lots of traffic you could be ticketed for driving too fast for conditions. I got a few of those too. Then there was Chicago, they would give a speeding ticket to a parked Jag because it looked fast. But I learned quickly, I folded up a $5 bill and stapled it to my drivers license. I never got another ticket, although my license was filled with holes.

Those were the days!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! RHL

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In the very early days the police were actually considered to be expert witnesses. When in court if the officer said you were speeding then you were speeding and the judge passed verdict accordingly. Most of the cars did not have speedometers so why would the cops need one?

Speeding was not a new violation with the coming of cars. Municipalities had speeding laws that were enforced against ridden horses and horse drawn vehicles often by police on foot patrol.

Layden is correct.

Police Officers in Western Australia could still charge motorists with estimated speeds well into the 1970's as they were considered expert witnesses.

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At Hershey in 2003, I saw a license plate sign that read, "Attention officer, the car has a speedometer".

I lived in Iowa in the 50's & they did not have a speed limit until about 1959. Up until then the official wording was "Reasonable and Proper". If you were stopped by a cop, you got a ticket for reckless driving. Ohio sold the speed limit by putting a point system in place with 3 points for a speeding ticket and 10 pints for reckless driving. You lost your license for the first reckless driving but you had to get 4 speeding tickets in 12 months to loose your license. 70 MPH was very common on 2 lane highways and I-80 was just go for it. I ran 70 to 75 on I-80 normally and I was passed by all kinds of vehicles including semi trucks.

A good friend's dad had a 1951 or 52 Olds 98 and about once a month he went out on a flat straight stretch to run about 100 or so just blow the carbon out.

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Also remember that at the dawn of the last century horses were still the main mode of transportation. As such, I suspect many "rules of the road" favored and protected them. As Craig is well aware, Studebaker did not exit the horse drawn market until 1920.

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In the early days, before speedos and radar, speed traps worked like this.

Two officers would go out and measure off a certain distance, and calculate how long it took to cover the distance at the speed limit.

When a car went by, the first officer would step out from behind a tree and wave a white handkerchief. The second officer would click his stop watch and click it again as the car went past. If it covered the distance in less than the alloted time, he got on his bicycle, chased down the car and gave the driver a ticket or a warning as seemed appropriate.

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Speed traps were rare and were confined to towns and cities. Tom McCahill reported in about 1960, that it took him about the same time to drive from New York to Miami as it took in 1928, in spite of the improvements in cars and roads. But in those days there was hardly any traffic and you never saw a cop south of Washington DC.

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Police forces used bicycles in the 1890s or possibly earlier. The first motorcycle cops were about 1912. Floyd Clymer sold the city the first motorcycle used in Denver that year. I don't believe police cars were used for hiway patrol work until the thirties.

Edited by Rusty_OToole (see edit history)

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That method is still commonly used in PA. Local police paint 2 lines across the road at a given spacing and time folks, since radar can only be used by the State Police.

That system is called VACSAR. Basically it consist of a stopwatch with integral calculator. Plug in the distance between the lines...instant mph.

This is commonly used in PA because they have (or at least did until I moved away) some very reasonable laws regarding speeding enforcement. Only State Police are permitted to use radar and laser detectors. Local police must use timing devices or direct observation (following) to write speeding tickets. This makes it a lot harder for a municipality to be onerous or capricious in speeding enforcement. (Another good thing in PA is the benefit of the doubt given to observed speeders on radar. An instantaneous measurement will only be enforced if it is more than 5 mph over the limit. A timed/VASCAR or observed result can be enforced for any fraction over the legal limit.)

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