Car ownership and regulation in interwar London

One of the features of the British interwar period is the absolute explosion of car ownership that took place, and the development of ‘car culture’. The number of private (non-commercial) vehicles on the road increased in particular; from 187,000 private cars in 1920 to 1,523,000 by the outbreak of the Second World War, of which around 350,000 drove around London.[1] Not only were there more and more cars on the road; they also were able to reach increasingly high speeds. These two developments led inevitably to one of the greatest traffic concerns of the interwar period: an increase in road traffic accidents leading to casualty or even death.

The rapid increase in the number of privately-owned cars was facilitated by both a reduction the price of cars (and a burgeoning second-hand market), and a general rise in living and income standards for lower-middle-class workers, particularly those in London and the South East.[2] More people were able to put money aside to buy consumer goods, and many more families were able to buy a low-power, low-cost car, or buy a care through a hire-purchase scheme in which one pays in instalments. For those who had moved into one of London’s newly developed suburbs, the car represented the possibility to go on weekend day-trips outside of the city and visit roadhouses. Yet suburban development also increased the chances of accidents, “because of the high number of fast arterial roads built there and the predilection for building housing estates near to these new roads.”[3]

As the number of vehicles on the road increased, so did the number of fatal accidents: from 2386 fatal accidents in England and Wales in 1920, to 5690 fatal accidents in 1935.[4] To put these figures in context: “there were more road fatalities in the three years 1929 to 1931 than there were British soldiers killed in the wars with France between 1793 and 1815.”[5] Naturally, these figures sharpened minds and political will to make roads safer. It seems counter-intuitive, then, that the Government actually decided to abolish maximum speed limits in 1930.[6] As the average car could reach speeds of 70 miles per hour, abandoning speed limits had consequences.[7] The decision was hastily reversed in 1934 in light of the fast-increasing numbers of accidents and casualties.[8]

The reason for the original abolishment of speed limits came down to social class, as so many things in interwar Britain do. Before the First World War, cars were luxury items that were only accessible to a select few. In the Victorian tradition of law making, the upper classes were used to their leisure pursuits to be unregulated.[9] When traffic regulations were adopted, many drivers suddenly found themselves confronted with the law for the first time.[10] To make matters worse, those enforcing the regulations were police officers who were generally working class.[11] Those with political clout and influence found themselves suddenly treated as criminals when they breached traffic regulations, and they were able to build a coalition that successfully lobbied for the removal of the speed limit in 1930.

The 1930 Road Traffic Act did, conversely, introduce additional offences in ‘careless driving’ and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.[12] This subtle shift in legislation meant that rather than allowing blanket prosecution for anyone breaking an (arbitrary) speed limit, only individuals in specific circumstances could be prosecuted. It assumed that most drivers would be responsible enough to stick to a sensible speed limit. The rise in road traffic incidents and casualties following the passing of the Act, however, indicated otherwise. Before long, those lobbying on behalf of pedestrians and other vulnerable road users were able to argue in parliament for the (re)introduction of tighter traffic safety laws.[13]

The big flaw in depending on drivers to be responsible, was that there was no formal system for training or testing drivers. People taught each other how to drive, and there was no agreed quality test that determined what constituted ‘good’ or ‘safe’ driving. The 1934 Road Traffic Act tackled both issues together by not only re-introducing a speed limit (although it was raised from 20 mph to 30 mph[14]) but also introducing a compulsory driving test for everyone who started driving after 1 April 1934. The road infrastructure was also amended with the introduction of pedestrian and pelican crossings.[15] Ford made this reassuring instruction video for budding drivers in 1935, explaining how the driving test worked:

By the end of the interwar period the debates around traffic regulations and car safety had settled down as car ownership had become normalised. Cars were no longer a dangerous and transgressive novelty but rather had been incorporated into the standard and expected middle-class experience. After a period in which various futures for car ownership and regulation appeared possible, the matter solidified into a regulatory framework that is still in use today.

[1] Clive Emsley, ‘’Mother, What Did Policemen Do When There Weren’t Any Motors?’ The Law, the Police and the Regulation of Motor Traffic in England, 1900-1939’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Jun., 1993), 357-381 (p. 358); Michael John Law, 1930s London: The Modern City (Canterbury: Yellowback Press, 2015), p. 62

[2] Michael John Law, ‘‘The car indispensable: the hidden influence of the car in inter-war suburban London’, Journal of Historical Geography, no. 38 (2012), 424-433 (p. 427)

[3] Law, 1930s London, p. 70

[4] Emsley, ‘Mother’, p. 359

[5] P.W.J.Bartrip, ‘Pedestrians, Motorists, and No-Fault Compensation for Road Accidents in 1930s Britain’, The Journal of Legal History, 31:1 (2010), 45-60, p. 47

[6] Ibid.

[7] Law, 1930s London, p. 70

[8] Claire Corbett, Car Crime (Uffculme : Willan 2003), p. 107

[9] Emsley gives the examples of racecourse betting and foxhunting, which were permitted when equivalent pursuits of the working-classes were regulated. The regulation of foxhunting of course remains a live political issue in the 21st century. Emsley, ‘Mother’, pp. 358-360

[10] Corbett, Car Crime, p. 18

[11] Emsley, ‘Mother’, p. 358

[12] Corbett, Car Crime, p. 19

[13] Bartip, ‘Pedestrians’, p. 50

[14] Corbett, Car Crime, p. 19

[15] Bartip, ‘Pedestrians’, p. 48