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American Government Special Collections Reference Desk


The New York Times
June 3, 1900

In the Penal Code They Are Classified with Wild Animals.

Drivers of Steam Vehicles That Are Not Preceded by Man Carrying Danger Signal Liable to Punishment.

Probably very few of the multitude of people who ride through the streets of the city in locomobiles or automobiles, propelled by steam know that in doing so they are violating a section of the Penal Code and laying themselves open to be punished with a fine of not more than $500, a term of not more than one year's imprisonment, or both.  This is the case, however, and it only needs the presence of some energetic person who will insist upon the enforcement of the law to make the city anything but a paradise for the locomobilists.  The owners of automobiles of which electricity is the propelling power are safe from the police, as the law deals only with vehicles of which steam is the motive power.  Most persons who are devoted to the automobile or locomobile, however, doubtless will be astonished to hear that in the eyes of the law it is classified with wild animals.

Section 640 of the Penal Code, among other things, says under the heading, "Wild Animals, &c.":

Any person who drives or leads along a public highway a wild and dangerous animal or a vehicle or engine propelled by steam, except upon a railroad, or causes or directs such animal, vehicle, or engine to be so driven, led, or to be made to pass, unless a person of mature age shall precede such animal, vehicle, or engine by at least one-eighth of a mile carrying a red light, if in night time, or a red flag if in the day time, and gives warning to all persons whom he meets traveling such highway of the approach of such animal, vehicle or engine, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and punishable with a fine not more than $500, a term of not more than one year's imprisonment, or both.

This clause was inserted in the Penal Code long before automobiles or locomobiles were invented with the intention of compelling people who ran dummy engines, such as they are now used on Hudson Street by the New York and Hudson River Railroad, to take proper precautions for the safety of pedestrians, but according to several lawyers it also applies to a locomobile.

One of the Deputy Assistant District Attorneys while occupied in his studies with the mysteries of the law discovered this section of the Penal Code and conceived the idea of making a crusade against the owners of automobiles in this city.  His suggestion met with no support from his superiors, however, and he is waiting patiently for the foundation of a Society for the Suppression of Locomobiles which will carry the law into effect.

Several owners of locomobiles whose attention has been called to the law say that it was passed before the invention of the locomobile and therefore cannot have anything to do with it.

"It would be ridiculous," said one, "to consider that law for a moment.  "What fun do you suppose there would be in running an automobile if you had to have a man with a red flag trotting in front of you all the time?  Why, it would rob the sport of all its interest and make it about as entertaining as running a steam roller.

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