How the UK's first fatal car accident unfolded

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Bridget Driscoll, circled, in a family photograph
Image caption,
Mrs Driscoll, circled, was said to be bewildered by the car's approach

Almost 4,000 people are killed on the world's roads every day, according to the campaigning charity RoadPeace which is marking National Road Victim Month. So who was the UK's first fatal car accident victim - exactly 114 years ago - and what happened?

There were little more than a handful of petrol cars in Britain when labourer's wife Bridget Driscoll, 44, took a trip to the Crystal Palace, south-east London, on 17 August 1896.

So she could be forgiven for being bewildered by Arthur Edsall's imported Roger-Benz which was part of a motoring exhibition taking place as she attended a Catholic League of the Cross fete with her 16-year-old daughter, May, and a friend.

But as the Times recalled 70 years later, when giving mention to a memorial service for Mrs Driscoll at her local church, hers was the misfortune of becoming the UK's first traffic fatality.

"At the inquest, Florence Ashmore, a domestic servant, gave evidence that the car went at a 'tremendous pace', like a fire engine - 'as fast as a good horse could gallop'," it read.

"The driver, working for the Anglo-French Motor Co, said that he was doing 4mph when he killed Mrs Driscoll and that he had rung his bell and shouted."

The car's maximum speed, the inquest heard, was 8mph but its speed had been deliberately limited.

One of Mr Edsell's two passengers during the exhibition ride, Ellen Standing, told the inquest she heard the driver shout "stand back" and then the car swerved - giving her a "peculiar sensation", according to a contemporary edition of Autocar.

Mrs Driscoll had hesitated in front of the car and seemed "bewildered" before being hit, the inquest heard.

Three of the German-manufactured, French-assembled cars were being demonstrated at the Dolphin Terrace, an area at the back of the palace, according to an edition of local paper the Norwood News published on 22 August 1896.

It reported May Driscoll as claiming the driver "did not seem to understand what he was doing" and that he had zig-zagged towards them.

"The car then swerved off, and [the] witness looked to see where it was, and it was then going over her mother. (Here witness broke down.) Her mother was knocked down, and the car was at once pulled up," the paper reported, in rather equine terms.

'No outrage'

However, there were conflicting reports about the speed and manner of Mr Edsall's driving and the jury returned an accidental death verdict.

He had been driving only three weeks at the time and - with no licence requirement - had been given no instruction as to which side of the road to keep to.

The Croydon Chronicle quoted one witness as saying "the machines made a great noise" but that he did not think it would drown out the tinkling of the alarm bell.

The era's matter-of-fact newspaper reports give no hint of public outrage or hysteria at the new menace.

Melvyn Harrison, of historical group the Crystal Palace Foundation, says people would have been simply bemused at the sight of these "horseless carriages".

"It was such a rare animal to be on the roads and, for her to be killed, people would have thought the story was made up," he says.

And as Jerry Savage, local history librarian at Upper Norwood Library, notes: "The Victorians had no real sense of health and safety. They would just sort of accept the death as what they would call a horrible tragedy."

Nonetheless, the National Motor Museum's libraries officer Patrick Collins admits there was "quite a lot of anti-car feeling" in the UK at the time.

"A lot of people didn't want drivers running around the country scaring horses," he explains, adding that there were fewer than 20 petrol cars in Britain at the time.

This was reflected in the rules of the road at the time. To the frustration of early drivers, the nation's first cars were subject to strict safety laws which had been designed for steam locomotives weighing up to 12 tonnes.

Red flags

Each vehicle was expected to have a team of three in control; the driver, the fireman - to stoke the engine - and the flagman, whose job was to walk 60 yards in front waving a red flag to warn horse-drawn traffic of the machine's approach.

The flag requirement was ditched in 1865 and the walking distance reduced to 20 yards, although speed limits of 2mph in towns and 4mph in the country remained in place.

Mrs Driscoll died just a few weeks after a new Parliamentary act - designed for the new and lighter petrol, electricity and steam-driven cars - raised the speed limit to 14mph, while the flagman role was scrapped altogether.

The coroner told her inquest that he hoped hers would be the last death in this sort of accident.

Little did he know how times would change over the following century, with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents estimating more than 550,000 people have been killed on Britain's roads since then.

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