Reckless Driving, Nineteenth Century–Style
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Reckless Driving, Nineteenth Century–Style

Illustration by Matt Daley/Torontoist.

Cabbies who execute U-turns with no warning. Drivers who refuse wait two seconds at a pedestrian crossing. Hotshots who think nothing of showing off their ultra-cool set of wheels by shifting into warp drive without any care about anyone else sharing the road. Car owners who ignore the existence of turn signals. Cyclists riding on the sidewalk who hurl obscenities at pedestrians minding their own business.
It can be a jungle on Toronto’s roads thanks to reckless drivers of all stripes, but this isn’t news to anyone who’s lived here for a while. The types of vehicles some of our citizens probably shouldn’t be operating matters little, as crazy drivers in Toronto were a problem even before the automobile arrived. We recently unearthed an editorial from the nineteenth century which proves that there has always been a risk of being mowed down by anyone in a hurry, even at eight miles an hour.

Under the title “Reckless Driving,” the lead editorial in the May 5, 1881 edition of the Toronto Evening News traces the history of crazy drivers back to Greek mythology:

That son of the immortals who was cast out of Olympus through his reckless management of the celestial chariot was served quite right. The pity is that he did not alight upon some other planet than ours, which seems to have been selected by the aristocracy of mythology as a fit receptacle for all the rubbish they had to dispose of. The bad example set by him has only been too closely followed, and the result is that the old, the infirm, and unwary are liable to be knocked down and run over in our street upon any time/day which woos the furious driver to his pleasant pastime.

Is the cop on the right watching for speeders? King Street at Yonge Street, looking east. Toronto, c. 1875. Wikimedia Commons.

The editorial writer then presents scenarios that make one wonder if pedestrian accident/fatality statistics were as high as those seen in the city earlier this year:

The little girl on her way to school is not an imposing personage, but she has, or ought to have, a right to go to school without being frightened out of her wits at every street crossing. When THE EVENING NEWS takes its walks abroad these bright May mornings having, like Gilpin’s wife, “a frugal mind although on pleasure bent,” it often observes that the little ones on their way to school are perplexed and bewildered by the furious manner in which various vehicles are driven down upon them. School going children are not the only victims. Old men and women, the halt, the lame and the blind, are sometimes knocked down and run over as though they were mere bundles of old rags. By what right does a coachman, or cabman, or a butcher’s boy do this sort of thing? If THE EVENING NEWS is not misinformed there is a city ordinance against furious driving, but furious drivers seem not to care for the city ordinance. It is, we understand, the duty of the police to see that the limit of eight miles per hour is not exceeded by any vehicle with a horse at one end of the rains [sic] and a fool at the other end. The limit is not limited enough, and ought to be circumscribed, but is exceeded every day in the week without fear and without penalty.

Unfortunately for the police, the radar gun had yet to be invented. We imagine that unless a constable was already mounted, chasing after the speeders would have been next to impossible. The solution? Drop the speed limit.

The police have failed to perform their whole duty in this respect. It is true that it is difficult for a constable to tell whether a horse is being driven at the rate of more than eight miles an hour or not, but there are flagrant cases which not even a constable can mistake. Eight miles an hour is altogether too fast for our more crowded thoroughfares. If our constables cannot tell when that pace is being exceeded, and when people are being placed in danger of their lives, perhaps a reporter of THE EVENING NEWS, stop-watch in hand, can. Anyhow, this reckless driving must be checked.