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Posted on - 03/04/2009
by ABH



The First Crash & The First Laws:

A History Lesson With A Moral Today


In 2007 Velo Press released Bicycling and the Law: Your Rights as a Cyclist. The book was the brainchild of former Olympic cyclist-turned-lawyer Bob Mionske.


Bob & I have corresponded via email for several years on numerous “bike law” issues. When he found himself running up against some tight publishing deadlines he asked me to contribute some work on the book. As the result of writing a few chapters, Bob listed me as a co-author.

-Lance Armstrong wrote the Foreward, noting that in the book “…you can find practical advice for any problem you face as a cyclist, from protecting your bike against theft, to fighting a traffic ticket, to prosecuting harassers…” like the one who tried to run Lance over!

Others who have praised the book include Rep. James Oberstar, one of cycling’s “stars” in the House of Representatives, George Hincapie, from the Disovery Channel Cycling Team, the Bicycle Transportation Institute and the National Center for Bicycling and Walking.

The book starts off with an outstanding story – the story of the first recorded automobile accident. It occurred on a bright, sunny Memorial Day – May 30, 1896. On that auspicious day Cosmopolitan magazine [yes, THAT Cosmo… ] had sponsored a race of horseless carriages. In it were four “Duryeas,” a Booth Rogers and, from Paris, an Armstrong. After a parade of the participants, the race began.

Mr. Henry Wells, of Springfield, Massachusetts, was driving a Duryea Motor Wagon near Broadway and West 74th Street when he apparently lost control of the Duryea and began zigzagging down the roadway. Unfortunately, he collided with another vehicle, injuring Miss Evylyn Thomas. The police, not yet experienced in vehicular crashes, arrested Mr. Wells and held him pending word on Ms. Thomas’s condition. She suffered a fractured leg, but police were told that she was soon recover.

So why on earth is this crash of any interest to cyclists? Well, the key fact left out in the recitation of facts above is that Miss Evylyn Thomas’s vehicle of choice was… a bicycle!

Yes, Ms. Evylyn Thomas was one of the tens of thousands of New Yorkers out riding their BICYCLES that glorious Memorial Day. In fact, Ms.Thomas was riding a Columbia – one of the finest bicycles on the market at the time with a firm price of $100.00. Since the average monthly wage for commonfolk was around $30.00, the $100.00 price tag was quite a stretch for all but the old money, or new money, folks.

New York City, on Memorial Day of1896 reflected a transportation crossroads of sorts. Pedestrians shared the streets with horses, horse drawn vehicles, trolleys, bicycles and the new “automobiles.” Cycling was tremendously popular at the time, but cyclists were often viewed as scofflaws who flew by willy nilly without much concern for the rights of others. Pedestrians were frequently clobbered by cyclists, horses were scared silly and cyclists often crashed into each other. Speeding cyclists were known as “scorchers” and the New York Police Commission, whose chair was none other than future President, Teddy Roosevelt, organized a special squad of the first bike cops solely to apprehend “scorchers!”

Numerous bike crashes were reported for May 30, 1896 and five cyclists were arrested for scorching. Before fining the speeding cyclists the magistrate uttered words that, one could argue, have strong meaning on some group rides today: “Some of you people think that no one has a right in the streets but yourselves. I know I have had to run for my life to get out of the way of reckless bicycle riders…”

One big problem was that the Law had not developed fast enough to keep up with technology. Bicycles and motorized vehicles were not covered by any then current laws. With bicycles, cars, horses, carriages and the like all fighting for space, and trying to get people around as quickly as possible, broader legislation was clearly needed.

The New York legislature adopted a statute declaring that bikes were “carriages” and bicycle operators were entitled to the same rights, and had the same responsibilities, as drivers of horse drawn carriages. Courts brought bicycles into the legal system by granting them the same common law legal rights to use the streets as operators of other vehicles enjoyed, and thereby subjected them to the same legal duties.

The “Good Roads Movement” got its start around this time. In 1880, bicycle enthusiasts, riding clubs and manufacturers met in Newport, Rhode Island, to form the League of American Wheelmen [now known as the League of American Bicyclists]. The League became a national phenomenon and started publishing “Good Roads” magazine. Soon the club had a MILLION members and began pushing legislatures all over the country for road paving and improvements. The League gained considerable political clout as candidate’s positions on Roads was a hot button issue of the day!

The League lost members and power as the automobile became the vehicle of choice for America after the turn of the century, but the impact of the League’s push for good roads and good laws is still seen today. In many states, the Good Road Movement is credited with the first paved roadways and with insuring that the rights of bicycle operators to use the roads were recognized in state law. Today, in almost every state a bicycle is a “vehicle.” A bicycle has been defined as a “vehicle” in Ohio since the very first vehicular code was written.

The next time some idiot passes you and impolitely suggests that you take your riding elsewhere, you may want to retort with a reference to the Good Roads Movement and suggest that he/she thank YOU and your predecessor bicyclists for insuring that ALL vehicles had good, safe, paved roads on which to travel!


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