The First Speed Traps

by: Carmel Roberts

January 24, 2012

Ropes, wire, and logs—Oh my! Think traffic cops today go to extremes when trying to get drivers to slow down? Helicopters and  radar guns have got nothing on some of the crazy measures police resorted to 100 years ago. 
As a follow-up to last month’s year-end regulatory review, we got to wondering what things were like for auto enthusiasts around the turn of the century. We’re talking way back, when traffic laws were virtually nonexistent and vehicle registration was unheard of.

From the earliest days, automobiles were controversial because of the noise they made, the dust they raised, and the danger their high speed posed to drivers and pedestrians alike.

A Call for Law

In his book examining the formation of America’s automobile culture beginning upon its introduction, America Adopts the Automobile, 1895-1910, author James Flink noted the quick public demand for regulations in response to newspaper reports of reckless driving, speeding, and traffic accidents. As early as the turn of the century, municipalities began to heed their cries.

"Local automobile ordinances were passed,” writes Flink, “which almost invariably required registration, including the display of an identifying numbered tag on the vehicle, so that an automobilist guilty of speeding or reckless driving could be more easily apprehended."

Early registration systems—administered only at a local level—made it easier to assess personal property taxes against car owners. But the system proved too clerically cumbersome, not to mention an expensive hassle for vehicle owners expected to register their car in every town they might pass through. It wasn’t long before states took over the business of registering cars. But that didn’t mean America’s first motorists took willingly to the new process.    
Catch Me If You Can

As states passed laws requiring operator's licenses and imposing speed limits, drivers began to evade law enforcement. Initially, avoiding police in a car was easy because the cops didn't have cars themselves.  

Police tried to admonish reckless drivers by issuing letters of warning, sent to the address to which the vehicle was registered. But early car owners scoffed, according to Flink, who recounts stories of some wealthy motorists framing their official looking letters and hanging them on an office wall to serve as a funny conversation piece. Other drivers made failing to comply with registration requirements into a kind of sport; speeders began using bogus license numbers, and goggles with masks that concealed the driver’s face became popular.

The cops responded by setting up the nation’s first speed traps.  

Crude and dangerous to say the least, turn-of-the-century police decided that the best way to stop reckless motorists was to string ropes across roads frequented by speeders. Canny drivers responded by mounting cutting blades on the fronts of their vehicles.  

According to Flink, police upped the ante by substituting wire cables for rope or by throwing logs in the roadway. Automobile clubs responded to such measures by putting up signs warning of speed traps or even posting club representatives, dressed in club colors, along roadsides where police were known to lurk.



  1. ted plano

    interesting read

  2. Brian Michel N/W Ohio

    WOW! They still do that in ohio!

  3. Fritz Indian Trail, NC

    My Dad told me about the cables they used up North. It timed how long it took to hit the second cable to factor the speed. A man who Dad knew came up on one of these traps while "hauling the mail" and completely locked up his brakes, skidding all through the cables and got them wrapped all up into his wheels! The furious cops came up to see their speed trap destroyed and began to bless the driver out when the driver got MORE furious then the cops telling them that if they didn't get this crap untangled from his car he was going to sue them for damages. They let him go.

  4. BRB Florence,CO

    Interesting, but where is the rest of the story?