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Toronto Urban Legends: Keep Arm In

Was the ubiquitous "Keep Arm In" sign on TTC vehicles really inspired by a horrific accident?

The truth behind the tales people tell about Toronto.

Photo by mxi from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by mxi from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Years ago, I attended a party on a TTC streetcar that a friend had rented to cruise around the city for a few hours while the guests made merry. Regulation around streetcar charters is explicit: “Smoking and consumption of alcoholic beverages on all vehicles are prohibited.” Maybe the rules were different back then, or observed less rigorously, but either way the event devolved into drunken mayhem, a vomitous bouillabaisse of whiskey, wanderlust, and ad hoc karaoke.

But one thing we didn’t do, even at the depth of the debauch, was put our arms out the window—because there was a sign. “Keep Arm In,” it warned, then as now a subtle but sobering reminder of the horrors that could befall protruding appendages.

The origin of those signs on Toronto buses and streetcars is the stuff of local myth. The basic story is always the same: somebody extended a limb at the wrong time and had it messily torn off. As I heard it, it was some “poor dude in Rexdale in the ’70s,” but there are undoubtedly myriad variants of time and place.

So what’s the truth? Was there really a gory dismemberment that prompted the TTC to post signage reminding us “Hey, keep your limbs inside or you’re gonna lose ‘em”?

Our sources at the TTC say that the timing and rationale for introducing the notices have been forgotten, so we have to use the limited evidence at our disposal for a best guess as to when they first went up.

Photo courtesy John Chuckman.

Photo courtesy John Chuckman.

In the above photo of a streetcar, dated 1928, there’s no visible notice warning the tidy, homogenous passengers to keep their body parts close by. However, there was no real need, because the then-Toronto Transportation Commission had taken the precaution of covering the lower part of the windows in wire mesh. Sure, in an accident riders would been trapped and barbequed like guests at a Donner Party reunion picnic, but folks were tougher back then.

Photo from City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1567, Series 648, File 111, Item 1

Photo from City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1567, Series 648, File 111, Item 1.

By 1942, trolley passengers were no longer caged, and there are still no warning signs apparent. This can be forgiven; with the imminent threat of a fleet of U-boats surfacing off Hanlon’s Point and disgorging legions of goose-stepping Hitler-philes, the odd detached arm wasn’t top of mind for Torontonians.

Fast forward to 1967.

In that year, a 13-year-old boy named Ted Allen Harris, perhaps caught up in Summer of Love euphoria, poked his arm out the window of an electric bus on Bay Street, and had it “crushed and broken” by contact with a metal pole. His parents sued for damages, and the case ended up in the Supreme Court, where it was determined that the boy and the TTC shared responsibility for the injury. The family was awarded $7,500 plus court costs.

While this sounds a lot like the mythic incident said to have prompted the sign posting, we know that it isn’t, because there was a “Keep Arm In” notice right below the window where the boy so conspicuously and disastrously failed to do so. It was in part the presence of the sign that led an Appeals Court judge to declare young Ted the “author of his own misfortune.” (This ruling was subsequently overturned by a more sympathetic Supreme Court.)

So what we know is that sometime between the 1940s and the 1960s, some vigilant bureaucrat decided to remind people that body parts protruding from TTC vehicles could be subject to impact with the external world, with unhappy results.

As far as we can tell, however, the decision didn’t result from any specific mishap, and was probably an attempt—unsuccessful, as it turned out—to shield the TTC from liability when some free spirit inevitably took a chance and lost.

Most likely, the story of the ripped-off arm as the catalyst for the signs sprang from the 1967 Harris case which, as a Supreme Court decision and curmudgeon bait (“I’d cut my own damn arm off for $7,500!”), would have gotten a fair bit of media coverage. The tale became bloodier over years of recounting, and if it wasn’t the inspiration for the ubiquitous signage, well, maybe it should have been: an interesting story is always better than a dull fact.

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