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The story behind the very first speeding fine

Motorsport
Hampton Court Palace, Richmond – We all hate getting speeding fines, but they are so much a part of the modern motoring landscape that we tend to just ‘shut up and pay up’, which is what the authorities hope we will do anyway.

But things were vastly different 120 years ago, when motoring enthusiast Walter Arnold was copped with the very first speeding fine. On the chilly afternoon of 28 January 1896, Arnold went clattering through the little town of East Packham in Kent in his modified Benz at a speed later estimated to be four times the legal limit.

That’s not quite as wild as it sounds, however. At the time, under the provisions of the Red Flag Act, any self-propelled vehicle being operated on a public road in Britain was limited to a top speed of 3.2km/h (a gentle walking pace) and had to be preceded by a man on foot, waving a red flag. Arnold had no flag-waver and he was kicking up the dust at a lot faster than walking pace, so the local constable abandoned his lunch, grabbed his bicycle and gave chase.

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This is the actual car that got busted for the very first speeding fine.

This dedicated lawman kept up the chase for more than half an hour, over eight sweaty kilometres, before he was able to catch the Benz and pull Arnold over – at which point a simple warning was out of the question and Arnold was slapped with a summons.

Given the time (about 36 minutes) and the distance (eight kilometres) covered during this epic chase, simple mathematics will tell you that Arnold was averaging at least 12km/h – four times the national speed limit! The magistrate concurred, and fined Arnold a shilling (86c) plus costs – and East Packham’s speed demon went down in history as the very first driver to be convicted of speeding.

Priceless publicity

Ironically, less than 10 months later, the Red Flag Act gave way to the Locomotive Act, which did away with the footman and raised the national speed limit to a heady 22km/h – about as fast as a champion marathon runner. A bunch of motorists celebrated by racing each other on the public roads from London to Brighton – a feat which is repeated each year to this day by cars made before 1905 – and one of them was Walter Arnold himself, in another modified Benz.

Arnold probably regarded that first speed fine as priceless publicity; he was one of Britain’s first motor dealers, first in Benz cars and later, between 1896 and 1899, his own modified Benz models under the name Arnold Motor Carriage.

That 1896 Benz is not only still in existence, it still runs; it will be on display at the annual Hampton Court Palace Concours of Elegance from 1-3 September.

IOL Motoring

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