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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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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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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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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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I'm in local government in a small PA town. Contrary to what folks think, speed "traps" are not money makers for the municipality. We contract out our police coverage to a regional force. It costs us $57.50/hr times two officers to set up a speed "trap". What with any fines being split between state and local government and various other fees we almost always lose money writing speeding tickets. I have mixed feelings about those digital mobile speed signs "You Speed Is" trailers. Young drivers tend to see them as a challenge, including my own daughter who was stopped doing twice the limit on the street we live on. 3 months without her license cured her need for speed. Yep Vascar, I couldn't come up with that word. There are sporadic attempts to empower local police to use radar but nothing ever comes of it.

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Speeding is one of my main character defects. I am not reckless in any way I do my speeding on open stretches of highway with low amounts of traffic. I have had cops that have no idea how fast I was going but they knew it was over the speed limit. There were quite a few times where it was point to point = speed. I have not slowed down much as I get older but I do get more warnings than tickets these days.

I got one a couple of years ago that made me mad. I was traveling through Richmond Virginia on 64 at about 7am on a Sunday morning. The speed limit had dropped to 55 but I kept the cruise control set at a high speed. There was almost no traffic and I had four lanes of open road when I noticed flashing lights in the grill of a junky dodge intrepid behind me. The intrepid was several years old dented and rusty with no markings to indicate police. It had tinted windows that were just dark enough that I could not tell if the guy driving was wearing a uniform. I pulled over and waited to see what got out of the intrepid before putting my car in park. It was a highway patrol officer and the poor guy must have been having a bad day because his attitude was awful. The jerk gave me a ticket for more than twenty over the limit which is reckless operation in Virginia. I know I was speeding but it was not at all reckless. I took the ticket and drove on home to Ohio where I have received several letters from Virginia DMV threatening me for not paying or showing up in court. I have sent several letters back telling them why I won’t pay and that they need to use common sense when giving tickets. Virginia has lost out on revenue because I no longer do any business in that state. I have lost all respect for their highway patrol and their court system. There is nothing they can do to me unless I am stopped again in Virginia so they lose on this one.

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Nothing PERSONAL benjamin j, speeding at 20+ over the limit IS reckless, YOU may not think so, but THAT'S the law.

I doubt that you really have lost their respect, he was doing his job, had you been driving at the speed limit, and someone rear ended you at 20+ over I would bet you would be asking for their help.

Your driving 20+ over says you didn't respect the laws of that state in the first place. What if everyone decided to set their OWN set of rules?, wouldn't that be a mess?

Don't be surprised if your state doesn't get involved, and demand you pay up. Most states work together, so don't be surprised. IMO.

I'm sure you are a good driver, but 20+ over isn't going to be considered just speeding in many areas.

Dale in Indy

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I'm in local government in a small PA town. Contrary to what folks think, speed "traps" are not money makers for the municipality.

Sadly, I'm afraid all of us are aware of isolated instances where they seriously are money makers. In Allegheny Co. (Pittsburgh area, ~1.3 million people) at one time more than 10% of the speeding tickets were written by tiny Aleppo Twp., population ~1600. They probably still are. Aleppo Twp. happens to have jurisdiction over a very short stretch of 25 mph road that runs between PA Rte. 65 (Ohio River Blvd.) and I-79's interchange for that route, as well a short stretch of as Rte. 65 itself. It is not unusual to see 3 and 4 tickets being written there simultaneously.

Another time I drove from Ft. Walton Beach, FL to Cincinnati, using secondary roads until I hit I-65 in Georgiana, GA. I drove through Georgiana at 8:00 AM on Easter Sunday morning, and on the short connecting route (GA 106) between Georgiana and I-65 I came upon 3 local police officers running s seriously well hidden speed trap in a valley on a 35 mph stretch that could have easily been 55 mph. I wasn't speeding (it seemed suspicious), but it wouldn't have mattered anyway because all three had customers waiting already, at 8 AM Easter morning in the heart of Bible Country! I don't think that stretch is in the city limits, so it may have been a rural township running that trap. However in that ~5 mile stretch I might have seen 2 other cars traveling at all.

I consider this to be more an abuse of the police officers than of the motoring public. That job comes with risks that deserve more dignity than being defacto toll collectors. Happily such instances are very rare, but they do still occur.:(

Edited by Dave@Moon (see edit history)
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As for "the Golden Rule of the Road"- The "Golden Rule" is to love thy neighbor as thyself. I can't imagine that the term Golden Rule would have been used any other way, particularly in the 1900s. I remember hearing of the "Courtesy of the Road" back when I was a kid. You never hear about it now- all you hear about is road rage! My understanding of the courtesy of the road was to respect the right of way of other drivers, and to aid other drivers in distress. I imagine the Golden Rule of the Road was along those lines- just another name for it.

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I found the following article in the 1919 edition of Automobile Topics.

--------------------------

Conviction Secured Through a Photographic Instrument

In the Roxbury District Court, Boston, Mass., last week (1909), a photographic instrument was introduced as evidence in the case of a motorist accused of speeding. Largely on the strength of this instrument the accused was found guilty. The inventors of the new photographic speed recorder are Daniel F. Comstock and Herbert T. Kalmus, instructors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor Gilbert M. Lewis, of the same institution, testified in behalf of the accuracy of the photographic instrument. The method used by the operator of the camera is to step out behind the automobile as it passes, hold the lens in a vertical position and press the button. This registers the first picture, and about a second later the shutter works automatically and registers another picture on the same plate. Naturally, when the machine is moving, the picture first taken is considerably larger than that taken in the second instance.

Inside the camera, and just where it will show between the upper and lower picture, is a small dial, around which a hand works, as though on a clock. When the operator snaps the button for the first picture the hand starts and continues around the dial until the second exposure is made, when it instantly stops. There are little notches on the dial, which have been worked out by mathematics for timing purposes. As soon as the picture has been developed the process of calculation begins. A small steel scale, with the fraction's of an inch carefully marked off, is used to measure the distance between the treads of the two rear wheels, as shown in the first photograph, and then the measurements of the same section of the machine are taken in the second picture. By a system of mathematical formulae the measurements of the rear of the machine are worked out, and then a comparison is made with the notches on the small dial in the camera over which the hand has passed. This method, the inventors testified, has been used before for scientific purposes, but only within the last week or so for the purpose of timing automobiles.

post-30694-143142861416_thumb.jpg

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YEP, my neighbor just told me that most states are working together, and even using the national link to track out of state tickets, as are most insurance companies. He is with the state lic. section. He said some states give you more than enough time to settle, then ask the drivers state to get involved.

The more I think about someone thinking they can set their own speed limit laws, the more I think how 'selfish'. It's like someone running a stop sign, and telling the officer, HEY, THERE WEREN'T ANY CARS COMING IN ALL DIRECTIONS. Just ask a police officer sometime, to tell you all the excuses they here from those breaking the law. It is a bunch, and some are so dumb.

I have had my share of tickets, LONG TIME AGO, but never could I really say anyone was at fault, but ME.

Dale in Indy

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Wayne Miller's book and original thread topic sound interesting.

But many of the postings here have gotten off the historical topic

and onto more recent personal experiences! I think historical replies

would be more interesting--and of more value to him.

Edited by John_S_in_Penna (see edit history)
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post-31482-143142864459_thumb.jpgOne thing referenced was a Jones "Tell Tale" speedometer, here's a picture of one, I have the original tag somewhere, notice the extra needle behind the main one, it would follow and stay at highest speed, of course there was a reset.

Yes, I've driven faster than the speed limit, but as I grow older I tend to follow it more and more, aggravating numerous other drivers. There's no other law that is so broadly viewed as a "suggestion". Thank The Lord and little fishes that murder, another act that's unlawful, isn't so popularly disregarded.

In the 1960's, I had a cousin with the Louisiana State Police. One day at dinner, he asked to see my driver's license, took it for a few seconds, handed it back, and asked "when did you get your speeding ticket"? Back then, a Trooper took your license, stapled it to the ticket, gave you a copy of your ticket which was your license until you paid the fine. Any trooper could feel the staple marks and tell if you were a repeat offender!!

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Wayne, by chance I am doing an article for our local monthly newsletter about the history of automobiles. As a matter of fact in 1899 here in Richmond, we were almost the first in the South to manufacture automobiles.

I am seeing the "golden rule" referenced two ways. One is letting violators off with a warning rather than giving them a ticket. The other is concerning the right of way at intersections. I guess it depends on who you ask but I am not seeing it as a common term.

As far as determining if someone was speeding, here is a link to a history given about that subject for New York. I know here in Richmond it wasn't until 1952 before the use of radar was initiated.

https://alansmysteriousworld.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/how-did-the-police-determine-the-speed-of-drivers-before-radar-was-invented-how-do-they-measure-speed-in-localities-where-radar-isn%E2%80%99t-allowed/

Edited by X-Frame (see edit history)
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If you consider the late 50's and early 60's as "early 1900s, I'll chime in with what I observed in the Westchester County area at that time. The most popular speed detection device then in use was a pair of pneumatic tubes (like the old gas station "ding-ding" alarms) connected to a timer. The tubes were spaced a measured distance apart and extended from one side of the roadway to the other. Using the elapsed time between triggering the pneumatic tubes, a vehicle's speed could be quickly computed. Don't ask me how I came to know about this.

Cheers,

Grog

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Even more food for thought. I am also seeing where a form of entrapment was used with unmarked vehicles equipped with speedometers would follow a vehicle speeding then pull them over. Not a new tactic, still used here in Virginia with State Troopers but not like they use to driving Mustangs, Camaros, Pickup Trucks, etc... mostly confiscated vehicles.

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