Things That Every Owner and Operator of Motor Vehicles Should Know


I HAVE been motoring with a friend. The invitation came by telephone just before lunch, and took me, as such invitations do, at a disadvantage.

He said, ‘Hello! Got anything important to do this afternoon?'

I said, ‘Hello! Nothing very.'

He said, ‘Take you out in the car.'

I said, ‘What car?’

He said, ‘My ear.’

I said, ‘Who’s running it?’

He said, ‘I am. Got my license this morning.’

I had forgotten, when he spoke, that he had a car, — a ‘little Ford,’as they are lovingly called, — though I had recently seen him learning how to run it. But I had told him the truth. That is the direct result of the infernal informality of these invitations by telephone. More than that, as I could not help realizing, this invitation carried a responsibility. He was my friend. He had his license. It was even more important now that nothing should shake his confidence in himself. My attitude would affect his confidence. I aped his enthusiasm as I accepted.

It is an apt example of the effect of habit on the normal instinct for selfpreservation that we who have no motor-cars trust ourselves so fearlessly with those who have. It is like our attitude toward the railway train, although in that case we are not personally acquainted with the engineer. We simply trust him. I should have had the same confidence in my friend except for the accident of seeing him

being taught. I should have rolled away as contentedly as Mr. Hazlitt starting out on his winding road for his three hours’ march to dinner. ‘It is hard,’ he wrote, ‘if I cannot start some game on these lone heaths. I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy.’ There are no lone heaths left in any part of the world that Mr. Hazlitt would be likely to inhabit; nowadays he would probably have a little Ford car of his own (or perhaps a motor-cycle, for he liked to go by himself), and take his pleasure in a three hours’ run to dinner. The game he started would do the running and leaping if not the laughing and singing for joy. But I digress in these thoughts of Mr. Hazlitt.

‘Don’t touch my arm!” said my friend sharply. ‘ It-makes-me-nervous -to-have - anybodytouch - myarmwhen-I ‘m-driving.’ A truck-load of groceries was coming, and he aimed his little Ford car at it. The mountain of groceries recoiled before him. My friend and the truck-driver blew their horns at each other. They advanced, retreated, and finally (as Shakespeare would have said) avoided. My friend shouted an apology to the truck-driver. The truck-driver (I regret to say) shouted a curse at my friend.

I was sorry to have touched my friend’s arm. I had put on my ulster, with the moth-balls still in the pockets, and the garment widened my natural proportions. It did not make me indestructible, though no doubt it protected me from moths, but it at. least added to my person its reassuring thickness.

‘Thank you,’ said my friend, noticing how I had shrunk away from him.

‘That’s much better. Now don’t forget to keep your eye skinned for righthand roads.’

There is an interesting little book I have since looked over — Things That Every Owner arid Operator of Motor Vehicles Should Know — which contains a bird’s-eye view of two automobiles of equal size, power, and general destructiveness, approaching each other along intersecting roads. ‘When two operators,’ says the book, ‘reach an intersection of ways at approximately the same time, the operator approaching from the other’s right shall have the right of way. The best way to prepare to observe this rule is to slow down as you approach every intersection, then keep your eye on the right. It is a good idea also to keep your eye on the left.’

My friend had improved upon these instructions: he had made me his right eye. Firemen on their way to fires, policemen pursuing criminals, and hospital ambulances speeding to the sick or disabled, have always the right of way. But these approach unmistakably. There is time and to spare for the cautious motorist to leave his car and climb a telegraph pole, not forgetting, however, to lock the car or effectively set the brakes and stop the motor. The real difficulty in looking out for right-hand roads is their normal secretiveness. Often the road ahead unrolls, as novelists say in describing scenery, like a broad ribbon; but every now and then it unrolls round a corner. Sometimes there is a sign stating that this is a DANGEROUS CURVE; or, perhaps, that immediately beyond are many children, heedless and happy (as one quickly imagines) at their play. Almost anywhere there may be a righthand road. Sometimes, to be sure, there is a sign, so that persons curious in such matters may learn the name of the road; but the convention is to place these signs where they will be least conspicuous and not compete seriously with the billboards. Once in a while, as if by accident, a right-hand road is quite plainly visible across open country.

‘There’s a big car coming along this next road,’ I remarked presently. ‘It is still quite a long way off, and looks to me like a Chesterfield — or perhaps a Camel —’

‘You don’t have to describe the car,’ interrupted my friend. ‘Say “Stop” or “Go.” That’s quick and to the point, and tells me just what to do.’

‘All right,’ I said. ‘Go!’

He blew his horn and went, forgetting for the instant something that every owner and operator of motor-vehicles should know about slowing down. The larger car — I was still uncertain whether it was a Chesterfield or a Camel — seemed to be coming a good deal faster than I had estimated. I decided that I should have said, ‘Stop’; but I had said, ‘Go,’ and it was too late now to change my advice. Instinctively I wrapped myself closer in my ulster and breathed deeply of mothball. But the operator of the Camel — or Chesterfield — remembered his book. He slowed down with astonishing rapidity. He knew that he had the right of way, but he graciously conceded it.

It was a beautiful afternoon for motoring. Autumn had come, but summer lingered. I was too warm in my ulster. Now and then, watching out for right-hand roads, I saw something of the scenery and pictures — a pond, a hillside, a maiden preserving her schoolgirl complexion, cows in a meadow, a gentleman in a bath-robe lathering his face with a perfect shaving-soap. Once in a while I involuntarily and stealthily glanced at my friend operating his car. It was unquestionably a major operation.

Yet it sometimes happened that the road not only unrolled like a broad ribbon, but was equally empty of human beings, live stock, and poultry. Then I unbuttoned my ulster, and my friend his face. If we had been Mr. Hazlitt, we should have laughed, we should have sung for joy.

These periods were too good to last. The ribbon was seldom empty. There might be, for example, just ahead of us:

a boy on a bicycle;

a touring car;

two or three hens;

a woman wheeling an infant in

a perambulator;

a cat crossing the road;

an old man driving a load of

Or there might be:

a child on a kiddy car;

lovers walking hand in hand;

a truck loaded with granite;

two beings of opposite sex on a

a horse and buggy;

a farmer leading two or more

These combinations are merely illustrative. They represent men, women, and children of all ages, any kind of vehicle in use during the past halfcentury, and all native animals and poultry. Wild animals are negligible unless you happen to meet a circus procession. ‘Most of the accidents,’ says the careful author of Things That Every Owner and Operator of Motor Vehicles Should Know, ‘happen in thickly settled districts. Slow down! You may lose a little time but may save a life.’ At such moments my friend slows down. He may lose a little time, but he may save not only one life but several. And I button my ulster. I may be too warm but I may save a life.

Human movement is dependent on instinctive mathematics. When I walk I am constantly solving a series of problems. So is everybody else within sight. We determine where we all are, and where we all shall be at successive moments; and thus we navigate, steering ourselves so shrewdly that we rarely bump into each other. So my friend, operating his car, must estimate the respective speed of the boy on the bicycle, the touring car, the woman wheeling the infant, and the old man driving the load of hay.

Here, it seems to me, is a timely suggestion for the writer of a school arithmetic: If a little Ford car is traveling at a speed of 10 miles an hour; and a boy on a bicycle, 26 yards in front of the little Ford car, is traveling at a speed of 6 miles an hour; and a woman, 12 yards in front of the boy on the bicycle, is wheeling an infant in a perambulator at. a speed of 1 1/2 miles an hour; and an old man, 147 yards in front, of the woman wheeling the infant in the perambulator, is driving a load of hay toward the woman wheeling the infant in the perambulator at a speed of 3 3/4 miles an hour; and a touring car, 57 yards behind the load of hay, is overtaking the old man driving the load of hay at a speed of 57 miles an hour — what is the correct speed for the little Ford car to pass the boy on the bicycle and the woman wheeling the infant in the perambulator without colliding with the old man driving the load of hay? or the touring car? or both? or everybody?

A careful operator must consider also the probable behavior and speed of the hens. ‘The highways,’ says Things That Every Owner and Operator of Motor Vehicles Should Know, ‘are made for all the people and should be safe for all. Slow down. You may reach your destination a minute later, but you are more likely to get there, and you may save a life.’ At such moments my friend was in no hurry. Anybody could have seen that his first thought was to save a life.

The sun was setting. My friend had turned his little chariot round. To do this, you select a wealthy private estate with a wide driveway, blow your horn in case the owner should happen to be coming out, make the appropriate gesture with your left hand, and drive in. Just as if you were coming to dinner. Then you stop short, blow your horn in case the owner should happen to be coming in, make the appropriate gesture with your left hand, and back out. Just as if you had made a mistake. But you back out at a different angle, which ingeniously turns you round, and provides, I think, an unanswerable argument for the preservation of wealthy private estates in a democracy.

Twilight deepened; and all the familiar things of day — trees, houses, men, women, children, vehicles, animals, and poultry — became by degrees vague and spectral. I turned up the collar of my ulster. Now and then a car, operated by a true believer in the doctrine of Safety First, came glaring at us with goblin eyes. Here and there, a farmer’s wife switched on the electricity in her quaint old-fashioned kitchen. My friend pressed a button and his little Ford car projected two beams of light.

Acarpassedus—‘Hell!’said my friend in a hardly audible whisper. It was now almost dark.

I wonder if you would mind,’ said my friend presently, ‘if I drop you at the next corner. It’s only a mile or so to your house. If I take the other turn, I’ll be home sooner. It’s getting a bit later than I said I’d be out, and I don’t like to make the family nervous.’

He laughed and I laughed. ‘Not a bit,’ said I heartily.

He blew his horn, made the appropriate gesture with his left hand, and stopped his car on the corner. I took off my ulster. I should be late for supper, but (as Things That Every Owner and Operator of Motor Vehicles ShouldKnow would put it) I was more likely to get there, and I might save a life.