Red Flag, Yellow Flag

Oh, how the tables have turned.

In the late 19th century, people looked with alarm at the new ‘horseless carriages’ that were appearing on the public highways. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic responded by passing ‘red flag laws’ to regulate this new and potentially dangerous form of transport.

In the UK, the Locomotive Act of 1865 required motor vehicles (mostly steam engines at that time) to be led by a pedestrian, waving a red flag or carrying a lantern, to warn bystanders of the vehicle’s approach.

According to Wikipedia Quaker legislators in Pennsylvania unanimously passed a bill through both houses of the state legislature, which would require drivers of “horseless carriages”, upon chance encounters with cattle or livestock to

    (1) immediately stop the vehicle,

    (2) “immediately and as rapidly as possible… disassemble the automobile,” and

    (3) “conceal the various components out of sight, behind nearby bushes” until equestrian or livestock is sufficiently pacified.

The bill was vetoed by Pennsylvania’s governor.

With the coming of the internal combustion engine, steam gave way to petrol-power and a new breed of ‘automobiles’ took to the roads. The UK Parliament repealed the red flag law in 1896 and raised the speed limit from 4 mph on country roads (2 mph in towns) to 14 mph. Motorists celebrated with an ’emancipation run’ from London to Brighton, an event that is still commemorated in by a vintage car rally.

More than a century later and in the town of Kirkland, Washington, it is pedestrians who are encouraged to carry yellow warning flags when crossing the road.

Sergeant Mike Murray of the Kirkland Police Department is in no mistake about who’s to blame when a car runs down a pedestrian in his town:

“we had 62 car-pedestrian collisions in the city and of those 62, none of them were carrying a flag”

Progress, eh?

But don’t be downhearted. The fightback is underway. And it’s deliciously subversive:

5 thoughts on “Red Flag, Yellow Flag

  1. Salt Lake City had flags in buckets at their crossings to carry across with you when I was there about 7 years ago. That’s hardly the weirdest thing about the city, though…

  2. I would say, having just made visited Louisville, Nashville and Portland, that motorists at junctions have a darn sight more respect for pedestrians than in London. As for cyclists, didn’t see too many of those…

    • My own experience is very similar.

      I lived in the Bay Area in California for two years and found that drivers would always yield to pedestrians at junctions. Some people said it was because of the strict liability law that means a car driver is always at fault if there’s a car-pedestrian collision at a crossing point or junction.

      So why the yellow flags, do you think?

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