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dave obee When a politician raced a car

By Dave Obee

In 1908, just like today, Victoria's city hall was concerned about traffic on our streets -- although it would be hard to imagine a member of today's city council sprinting through Beacon Hill Park in a race against a car.

That's what happened in June 1908, when Ald. Anton Henderson got out of a car that had been plodding along at the speed limit, a breathtaking eight miles an hour. Henderson "dismounted from the machine in which he was riding and did a 150 yards dash, but got so far ahead that he was forced to sit down and wait till the party caught up with him," the Daily Colonist reported the following day.

Had Henderson been in a vehicle, he surely would have been charged with breaking the city's law about speeding. That was, after all, the issue that brought everyone to the park in the first place.

Six local drivers, all members of the Victoria Automobile Club, were trying to make the case that the speed limits -- eight miles an hour in the park, 10 miles an hour outside it -- were not reasonable. To prove their point, they collected the mayor, the council members, and four city officials from city hall for a quick tour.

Well, not that quick. There were limits on how fast they could go, and the six drivers -- identified in the Colonist as W.L. Challoner, Joseph Sayward, Col. Hall, A.E. Todd, T.W. Paterson and W. Moore -- were determined to stick within those limits to prove their point.

The Colonist said the drivers wanted to prove that the limits made driving "slow and uninteresting."

On the way to Beacon Hill Park, "none of the members of the council showed signs of fright or asked to be allowed to get out and walk." After the eight-mile-an-hour loop around the park, the newspaper said, "no bearings were reported overheated and each machine was in excellent condition."

The six drivers argued for the principle of "common danger" determining the speed limits. In other words, the state of the traffic would regulate the speed.

The council members were not impressed, promising to consider the matter further at some future date.

It is possible they did not expect many more vehicles to hit our streets. After all, most of the people in town who could afford one had already made their purchase.

Just five years earlier, Dr. E.C. Hart had started tooling about in his Oldsmobile, considered to be the first vehicle in regular service in Victoria. By 1908, the local automobile club had 80 members, all of them owners of vehicles.

A few days after the tour through Beacon Hill Park, the auto drivers went to a meeting of Victoria city council to press their case.

Challoner, a jeweller, said the issue had become a concern because the police had been arresting drivers for speeding. Those speeders, he said, had not been the owners of private cars, but rather cars for hire. He said he had owned a car for several years, and had never heard of a private driver going too fast -- although he admitted that at times, the speed limit had been passed.

Challoner said that the police should give consideration, when making arrests, to those who had been speeding in less-populated areas, and therefore less likely to cause harm.

He had another suggestion, one that was breathtaking in its simplicity. If the city wanted to catch speeding cars, he said, the city would have to buy a car for its police to drive.

He argued that the speed limit on Dallas Road, from Beacon Hill Park to the Ross Bay Cemetery, should be 15 miles an hour.

Concerns about motor vehicles were also raised in Oak Bay, which had passed a bylaw that imposed a $15 tax on vehicles for hire. Now, the council was talking about setting a speed limit, especially because of the hotel traffic on Oak Bay Avenue.

"Our friends in motor cars might as well understand that they are not by any means deeply loved in this or any other community," the Daily Times said in an editorial.

"In most cases it must be admitted there is no substantial reason for this animosity. The average car driver is just as careful of the rights and persons of unfortunate pedestrians as the driver of any other vehicle.

"The difference between the case of the driver of an auto-car and the driver of any other kind of vehicle is that the first has great mechanical power at his command and can utilize that power, if he is so minded, to attain greater speed than is safe for either himself of any animate object he may encounter in his mad career, while the speed of other carriages is limited to the natural capacity of a horse, an ass or an ox."

The Times declared that drivers of motor vehicles found it almost impossible to avoid the temptation, once the "powers of locomotion are placed in his hands," to go as fast as possible, and to boast about it afterward.

"In the rural districts of Canada and of other countries the auto is by general consent voted a nuisance. It is a demon in the eyes of the superstitious, or nervous, farmer's horse. It frightens him into madness, with the result that his driver is frequently left upon the roadside and his vehicle scattered in fragments along the highway.

"The auto man, with a fine scorn for the feelings alike of men or women or of horses, acts as though he believed such incidents merely a joke in the day's travel."

The Times editorial said there was no reason for an auto driver to travel at 20 miles an hour rather than 10 -- and reminded readers that cars were banned entirely from Prince Edward Island.

That's changed, with speed limits everywhere higher. And these days, not many politicians are willing to race a car.

Posted June 15, 2008


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