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Early hurdles for the car

We think of automotive legislation as a more modern issue, but this is not the case. From the very early days of motoring, the development of the car was severely hindered by legislation.

If we look at the UK, where a significant amount of development was being made with steam cars, the government brought in legislation, which made it almost impossible to use mechanically powered vehicles on the road.

The Highway Act 1835 provided new powers to set standards of road use and protect them from damage. By 1861 The Locomotive Act was brought in, which limited the weight of vehicles to 12 tonnes and top speeds to 10mph in town.

The famous Red Flag Act was brought in by 1865 which then limited speed to 4mph in the country and 2 mph in towns. The act also stipulated that all self-propelled vehicles should have a compliment of three, including driver, stoker and famously, a man with a red flag walking at least 60 yards ahead of the vehicle.

This was relaxed slightly with the 1878 Highways and Locomotive Act, which made the red flag optional under local regulation. However, it also added that vehicles must stop on the sight of a horse and could not emit smoke or steam to avoid startling horses. As you can imagine, this is quite tricky with a steam engine.

It wasn’t until Locomotives on Highways Act 1896, that the strict rules on speed limits were relaxed, allowing cars to become a feasible form of transport again. Lighter locomotives (under three tonnes) were exempt from the 3 crew member rule and could travel at a higher 14mph speed limit.

It was in celebration of this change in road legislation that motor industry promoter Harry Lawson (he also formed the Coventry based Daimler Motor Company) organised a freedom run for 30 cars from London to Brighton, which took place on 14 November 1896. It is this day that is celebrated with the famous London to Brighton run.

Much of this developing UK highways legislation was adapted by other countries around the world, especially in the wider British Empire, USA and Europe.

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