17 August 1896: the motor car claims its first life

On this day in 1896, Bridget Driscoll of Croydon, Surrey, was out for a pleasant afternoon’s stroll in Crystal Palace Park with her daughter, May. Unfortunately for the doomed Mrs Driscoll she would become the first in a very long line of statistics – road fatalities.

Because also in the park was one Arthur James Edsall, one of three drivers giving joyrides to visitors. And depending on who you believe, he was driving a little too fast and not paying quite enough attention.

As she strolled along the Dolphin Terrace, Mrs Driscoll was suddenly faced with Edsall’s motor carriage bearing down on her, “zig-zagging” down the road, as May told the inquest into her mother’s death. Unused to seeing such a contraption – there were perhaps only 20 cars in the country at the time, Mrs Driscoll was rooted to the spot, “bewildered”. She held up her umbrella, perhaps to signal the car to stop.

But despite there being “plenty of room for the car to have passed”, it careered straight into her and “went over her head, death quickly ensuing”, according to the Western Times.

Edsall claimed he was driving at no more than four miles an hour. Indeed, the car wasn’t capable of doing more than four and a half, he said, as it was restricted. And even if it wasn’t, its top speed would be just eight miles an hour. But others disagreed. At the inquest, a witness described the car “as fast as a fire-engine – in fact, as fast as a horse can gallop”.

A passenger in the car testified that the car was going “faster than any omnibus” she had ever been on, and it swerved to the right for no apparent reason, and hit poor Mrs Driscoll.

The inquest sided with the driver, however, and the death was officially recorded as an “accident”.

The coroner said he hoped “such a thing would never happen again”. A wildly optimistic hope: according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, over half a million people have died on Britain’s roads.

Edsall, however, lived to the ripe old age of 84, dying in 1941.