The automobile has been the target of ridiculous legislation since before it even put a single wheel on the road, and the latest “safety recommendations” from a major city coroner simply add more fuel to the fire. Across the globe, enemies of the individual motorist are wielding a new weapon: the so-called “30 zone.” The phrase refers to a mandatory 30 km/h limit in cities and a 20 km/h limit in broadly-defined “school zones”. That’s (slightly over) 18 mph and 12 mph respectively, and those numbers represent the lowest speed limits widely applied to automobiles in over a century.
Nikolaus Otto was still working on his first attempt to build a reciprocating engine when England passed the “Locomotive On Highways Act of 1861.” This act and its successors restricted the speed of self-powered vehicles to 10 mph, a staggering velocity that was reduced further to 4 mph in 1865. Yet the enthusiasm for “horseless carriages” continued unabated, so the “Red Flag” act was passed. This law, which was later copied in the United States and elsewhere, required that each self-powered vehicle be preceded by a pedestrian waving a red flag and making some sort of noise.
In hindsight, we can clearly see that these laws were written at the request of the carriage trade and the railroad industry, both of which could easily see the automobile rendering their business models hopelessly obsolete. While “safety” was usually cited as the reason for placing restrictions on the motorist, anyone familiar with the workplace conditions of 1861 will immediately see the hypocrisy of such a statement.
In the 150 years between the Locomotive On Highways Act and the present day, the car has been the subject of every sort of governmental intervention one might imagine. It has been taxed on actual power, calculated power, displacement, piston swept area, empty weight, loaded weight, purchase price, retail price, fuel mileage, carbon dioxide emission, passenger capacity, country of original, body shape, load floor flatness, width, and nearly any other factor one can imagine. It has been regulated as to shape, size, capacity, speed, consumption, name, collision impact capacity, safety equipment, dashboard hardness, steering wheel construction, knee protection, door lock construction, engine location, pedestrian impact provision, brake light location, headlight color, speedometer reading, and a thousand other trifling details.
Still, none of this is enough to render the automobile harmless in the eyes of its opponents, who have at the heart of their distaste one simple fact: that the motorist is free to travel as he likes. The author Frank Herbert may have put the phrase “A population that moves on foot is easiest to control” into the mouth of his tyrant Leto IV in the Dune books, but surely some variation of that sentiment has crossed the mind of everyone from the mayor of London to the shadowy men who once ran the Soviet Union. A driver with fuel in his tank and a map in his hand can ignore transit strikes, recommended travel schedules, state borders and subway token machines. You, the government official, cannot always know where he is, even if Facebook and Google probably do. He may not be doing exactly what you would like him to do. He is not interested in helping you pay for bullet trains, light rail, or any other tunnel in your proposed rat’s maze of sanctioned movement. His freedom is not perfect - far from it - but it is real.
Given a choice, most people will endure additional hardship, cost, and inconvenience to have that freedom. They will pay outrageous taxes on fuel, even knowing that the money is siphoned to other purposes. They will wait for hours in traffic instead of taking a train. They will cheerfully drive vehicles which are designed for safe speeds in excess of 150 mph at a regulated-for-no-particular-reason 55 mph and accept a $250 fine if they are caught doing 61 mph. They will pay any amount to own, house, maintain, and operate their personal automobiles. They are not interested in schemes to replace the car with bicycles, shared transportation, or cattle-car subways. They want freedom and they will pay to have it. It’s that simple.
The only way to get people out of their cars is to make it simply unpalatable for them to operate those cars --- and that is the real reason behind the “30 zone”. Pedestrian safety is the nominal reason for it, and there is never any shortage of useful idiots to espouse that reason. The Twenty’s Plenty group is attempting to bully English cities into adopting a limit of 20 mph or below “wherever people live.” The Ontario provincial coroner has formally lent his support to a 30km/h limit, even though his own data shows that nearly 70 percent of pedestrian deaths are due to breaking the law or “distracted walking” thanks to an iPod or cellular phone. The rationale seems to be simply that pedestrians are going to step out in front of cars no matter what and it is the responsibility of the driver to hit them at a lower speed - as if people were simply a less intelligent species of deer, and no more answerable to the law than animals are.
The “30 zone” serves the same true purpose as the Red Flag Act: to make driving so slow and annoying that it ceases to be worth doing. By slowing cars to a first-gear crawl for miles at a time, the legislators hope to make cars useless to their owners. Those former motorists will then transition to accepted forms of mass transit, where they can be monitored, controlled, and tracked accordingly. It’s well-understood that mass transit really needs a monopoly in order to even have a chance of breaking even, and this is another step towards making that monopoly happen. It’s yet another advance by the enemy in what’s become known as the “war on the car”. The smokescreen of safeguarding people so stupid they can’t resist fussing with their iPhones while they jaywalk shouldn’t prevent motorists from fighting back at election time.
This modern Red Flag act should join its ancestors in history’s dumpster.