From the past: Amusing suggestions for driver safety, over 100 years ago
My stories in THE BEE regularly reach into the past and describe aspects of the history of Inner Southeast Portland. But what of today? Future historians here will have to describe and explain aspects of our lives here today.
And it may take some doing to explain the rules our City Council makes. Take, for example, bicycle regulations. The greatest part of our transportation in the Rose City is done by automobiles on paved streets, yet – and I should explain that my perspective on this is probably affected by my career with the U.S. Postal Service – City of Portland officials are pushing to install bike lanes down streets that are already clogged with gas-powered four-wheeled vehicles.
The Springwater Corridor Trail and Tilikum Crossing were constructed for the joint use of light rail, cyclists, walkers, and joggers, yet every time I myself hike the Corridor I feel like I just stepped in to the middle of a Tour de France race. What do those "share the road" license plates actually mean, and whatever happened to pedestrian rights? Future historians, of course, may be looking back with amusement on such annoyance, while taking their self-driving cars, personal aircraft, and just possibly Star Trek "transporter beam" to work.
It kind of reminds me of an article that I came across in the 1913 edition of THE BEE. An auto enthusiast from Detroit, Michigan, sent in a set of regulations that he thought should be enacted into Oregon Law. It consists of just eight regulations; and today it appears quite humorous in its proposals, so I thought it provides an oblique comparison to what we are facing today.
Let's take a look at what automobilists were thinking, back at the start of the 20th Century – with perhaps just a few brief comments by me.
Rule #1 – Pedestrians crossing boulevards at night shall wear a white light in front and a red light in the rear.This sure raises a lot of questions. First off, how big is the light in front? Is it as big as a basketball? If too large and too bright, it could blind onlookers, or at least make you feel like a convict trying to escape over the wall. Today some joggers wear lights on their caps, or a set of bicycle lights. And what were the ladies of high society at that time going to be thinking when they had go out to the theater or to the opera in the evening? It would take quite the creative lady to create a fashionable outfit around those dangling lights about their blouses and skirts.
Rule #2: Pedestrians, before turning to the right or left, must give three short blasts on a horn at least 3 inches in diameter.Well, this one departs from today's jogging practices altogether, and would pose an almost insurmountable challenge to those ladies of high society. You might be beginning to see the difficulties the automobile enthusiast who proposed these rules over a century ago had in getting these rules enacted anywhere. Let us speculate on how this could possibly work. How loud would the horn be? And what of the elderly couple driving their car when they are confronted by a crowd of 20 or more people, all blowing their horns? Who blew what horn, did the toot mean right or left, oh no – watch out for that little puppy in the road. See what I mean? Trouble.
Rule #3: Pedestrians must, when an inexperienced automobile driver is made nervous by a pedestrian, hide behind a tree until the automobile has passed.Was this guy serious? How do you spot an inexperienced driver? I'm really wondering how much thought went into vainly suggesting this ordinance! If you are walking in the woods of Oregon, there would be plenty of trees to hide behind, but what if you are walking down Milwaukie Avenue in Westmoreland. Where are all the trees? Would you get credit for hiding behind a bush or a patch of roses?
Rule #4: Pedestrians shall not carry in their pockets any sharp substance liable to cut automobile tires.
Here we have a darker suggestion. If the sharp object in pedestrians' pockets are to be of any danger to automobile tires, it would only be when the driver of the car is driving over the pedestrian. In such a circumstance one could argue that having sharp things in your pockets was your only practicable means of self-defense.
Rule #5: Pedestrians shall not, in dodging automobiles, run faster than 20 miles an hour.
You see? Running over pedestrians must have been a primitive early form of sport for these automobile enthusiasts, all right, just as we suspected above. And one of the rules of this sport would naturally be that the pedestrians were not allowed to outrun the car. Twenty miles an hour was pretty fast for those early cars! The only way I learned I could run 20 miles an hour was when I encountered a bear on a trail near Multnomah Falls. He went one way, I went the other – at 20 miles an hour. But I digress.
Rule #6: Pedestrians must register at the beginning of each year and pay a license fee of $5.00.
So pedestrians would have been required to wear a license if this guy had his way? Is that so you could later identify who you ran over? How would you wear it – like the number on the chest you see in old police mug shots? Putting that aside, that would have been quite a high license fee, especially considering that vehicle registration was only $3.00 for Oregonian motorists in 1905, and that anyone riding a bicycle before that time was charged one dollar. A butcher and baker made between 35 and 40 cents an hour back then. Ladies could buy a corset at the Needlecraft Shop in Sellwood for $3.00 or buy 10 pounds of Petite Prunes at Knipes' Grocery for 25 cents. It cost a nickel to ride the streetcar, and a dime for a bottle of Coca Cola.
Rule #7: Pedestrians, before license tags will be issued to them, must demonstrate before an examining board their skill in dodging, leaping, crawling and extricating themselves from machinery.
And you know what machinery this guy was thinking of – he was driving it. Apparently this sport of running people down in your car was no fun if people were not good at dodging. After all, if they were too easy to run down, you'd be puncturing your tires all the time with what was in their pockets. Had all this actually been enacted, it would have posed special problems to youngsters who might have tried to sneak out at night without their license when their parents are asleep; if they remembered to empty their pockets, they might still have forgotten to wear a white light in front and a red light on their backside.
Rule #8: Pedestrians not wearing a numbered license tags will be held responsible for all damages done to automobiles or their occupants by collision.
Today, this sort of outrageous liability disclaimer still exists, but it's in the fine print of the license agreement you click without reading when installing anything on your computer. Disclaimers will undoubtedly be part of all legal agreements in tomorrow's world, too, and it will be interesting to know if any of those ever get read either.
So maybe you found those suggestions fun. Somebody really did propose them – but of course they never became official ordinances here or ever, but the editor of the THE BEE in 1913 printed them and did suggest that they be submitted as serious considerations to the Portland City Council.
It's also interesting to know that Oregon had less than 500 cars registered in 1913. (They were easily outnumbered by pedestrians with sharp things in their pockets.)
Hopefully we can understand what "sharing the road" should mean for all of us. Motorists should slow down, stop texting, and watch out for pedestrians and bicyclists. Bicyclists need to respect and share the roads with pedestrians and motorists, so that we can all arrive to our destination in a safe and timely matter. People using sidewalks and crossing streets need to put their cell phones down and cross in a timely manner – obeying traffic control devices as drivers must – and be on the lookout for distracted motorists who don't see you.
Let's all share the road safely together.