In 1896 there were very few “petrol” cars in Great Britain. Bridget Driscoll, a wife and mother of three took a day trip into London on August 17th to go to see the wonders in the Crystal Palace. She was attending a church party with her teenage daughter and a friend.
As this 44 year old woman was crossing the road to the Crystal Palace in London, an imported “Roger-Benz” (a German made automobile) driver careened towards her and crashed into her. The driver, Arthur Edsall insisted that he was only doing 4 miles per hour, and he had rung his bell and shouted at her to get out of the way. Mrs. Driscoll, 125 years ago, became one of the first pedestrian crash victims from an automobile driver.
An eye witness said that the vehicle driver was moving very quickly, faster than galloping horses pulling a fire engine. She also said that Mr. Edsall was driving erratically and had yelled “stand back”. Mrs. Driscoll had become frozen in the middle of the road, apparently unclear of that directive.
At the time there were less than twenty vehicles in Britain. Mr. Edsall insisted that the speed he was driving was safe. He had only been driving for three weeks and there was no licensing requirement.
Mrs. Driscoll’s daughter who survived had stated at the inquest that the driver did not appear to know what he was doing, and was zig zagging across the road.
Right before Mrs. Driscoll’s untimely death speed limits were 4 miles per hour in the country and 2 miles per hour in the city. That had just been raised to 14 miles per hour, and a flagman, who was supposed to travel 54 meters in front of the vehicle to warn horse drawn traffic had just been scrapped.
The likelihood is that Mrs. Driscoll could not hear the horn or the driver’s shouting over the sound of the early automobile. Early newspapers were blunt: the automobile had run over her head. The driver “pulled up” which is a horsey term for what we would call “stayed at the scene”.
You would think there would be outrage at the time, but no. Vehicles were still so rare it was unlikely to be struck down by one, and might have been seen as not possible. Life was also fairly nasty and brutish in Victorian England. As BBC’s Andrew McFarlane discovered in speaking to a historic librarian, people at the time had “no real sense of health and safety”. The death was just a “horrible tragedy” and everybody got on with life.
There is an interesting statement in the inquest where the coroner hoped that this would be the last ever fatality from an automobile. Sadly, Mrs. Driscoll’s death was the first of millions.
The World Health Organization estimates that 1.3 million people die on roads every year. Over fifty percent of those fatalities are vulnerable road users like Mrs. Driscoll.
This YouTube video below shows street traffic in London from 1896 to 1903. You will see how rare the automobile was, and also how differently everyone could use the street, when the speed of carriage conveyances and trams were known and accounted for.