Friday, September 24, 2010

Car Crazy 1910!

The Russell, a Canadian Automobile Company in 1913.

The 'automobile' is just another character in my book Flo in the City, about a girl coming of age in the pivotal 1910 era in Richmond Quebec. Autos, as they were called (cars were trams) got their tire-holds (so to speak) in the towns, not the cities.

Cities had tramways (and in some cases subways) and the road traffic was chaotic for the most part. And cars, which were considered recreational by most people, just didn't belong on city streets.

But they were there, anyway.

In an earlier blog, I found a 1913 letter to the Editor of the NYT, where a New Yorker complains that the auto speed limit in Montreal is 7 miles an hour, too slow he thought.

So I looked it up on the Gazette Google archives. The speed limit for autos in the city in 1912 was 8 miles an hours. It was 15 miles in the country. (Just imagine how much FUN Flo Marion and Edith had riding cars over the hills of Richmond, Quebec!)

There were other auto regulations (mostly ignored, it seems, at least the drivers of horse drawn vehicles claimed as much. The auto drivers blamed the horse-drawn vehicles). A car had to stop at least 10 feet behind any other vehicle at a crossing. (What is the rule today?) Driving on the wrong side of the street was an infraction too :) (I did that just the other month, but let's not mention it.)

And some people, instead of complaining about the chaotic traffic, decided that new rules were needed. Perhaps slower vehicles should be asked to keep to the curb. And then you could raise the speed limit for autos to 15 miles in the city. (Some wanted that.)

The Automobile Club of Canada, Montreal, even suggested that drivers be regulated, that their every infraction be recorded and that their moral character and physical well-being be periodically tested.

Cars were "it" that's for sure. In March 1909, it was publicized that President Taft and his family would be primarily using an auto (well two of them at a cost of 12.000 dollars) for transportation. And their cars will 'know no speed limit,' travelling at up to 25 miles an hour.

And in the US, there were some people lobbying for an end to auto racing, as it was too dangerous. "That the welfare of the automobile industry demands the abandonment of automobile racing. Benjamine Brisco, President of the United States Motor Car Company, in answer to those who have criticized his recent broadside against speed competition of motors cars, while admitting that racing has served well in making for better cars, and in adding to the prestige of motoring,Mr Briscoe believes the purpose has been fully served and the industry is now in the position where it in being injured instead of benefitting from motor car racing, with the attendant dangers to human life."

What can I say? All very interesting. You know, the 1910's was the age of 'menace.' The Menace of the Motion Picture. the Menace of the New Woman. The Menace of Tainted Milk. The Menace of the Slum. Some menaces real, some menaces imagined.

Today, with our 24 hour media feeding our fears by focussing on all the bad things that could happen to us, so we barely let our kids out of our sight, etc.. there's one real menace, one real danger that we largely ignore, driving. Statistically speaking, the most dangerous thing we moderns do is to get into our cars each morning.

The other day the local news ran a story that manganese in water may be lowering our kids IQ by 6 points. A story, no doubt, that will lead people to go out and buy filters for their fawcets and pay for bottled water. (Hmm, good for business!) Yet every newscast has a couple of car death stories each day, and we still get into our cars. Hmm.

I think this is because car deaths aren't a 'primal fear' while tainted water and child abduction each are. (Hunter and gatherers didn't have autos, or even carts.) Our mid brain doesn't do statistics. (Hey, most of my brain doesn't do statistics.)

So, what are our other primal fears, our genetic hot buttons being pushed by the 24 hour press today? It's not hard to figure out. These fundamental fears usually have to do with survival and security. Flight or fight.

(Ps. I went through some stories from the 1960's, when parent were calmer, and it was astounding, how many people died on the roads back then, before seat belts and such. And our parents saw those figures published in the papers and still let us roll around in the back seat, unsecured. I personally sat in the front seat, on the hump, squeezed between my parents, both of whom were smoking. I could barely breath.)