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How Do You Run Yourself Over?

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page. Topics:  Ford Model T

How Do You Run Yourself Over?

Bill Crittenden
August 14, 2015


If only the Darwin Awards had existed since the invention of the automobile...

I've been doing some family history research and creating a family tree on Ancestry.com's really cool iPhone app, and to get me started my dad sent me a packet of information on one of the branches of my family.

After spending countless hours scanning government document lists and news sites for automotive content, my eyes just can't help immediately picking out the reference to a Ford Model T.

Seems that in 1933 one of my ancestors ran himself over with a Ford Model T. I mentioned that to my wife and she asked, "how do you run yourself over?"

This actually used to be a not uncommon occurrence in the early days of the "motor car," but nowadays it's almost unheard of. I've certainly seen it more than a few times in the newspaper archives from the 1900-1922 era that I post online.

Before cars had a clutch safety switch (a switch that cuts power to the starter unless the clutch pedal is pressed) it was possible for a car to lurch forward if the driver left the car in gear while trying to start the engine.

Now think of where you have to stand to start a hand-cranked Ford Model T...

Yup. What a way to go.

A lot of the mistakes of the past seem Darwin Award-worthy to us in hindsight, but in defense of the people of the era automobiles were so new to everyone back then, including the people who tried to drive and work on them for a living, and an enormous number of accidents occurred on a regular basis. The laws and safety systems we take for granted now were discovered through a lot of trial and error.

A lot of blood was spilled in those errors before airbags & seatbelts saved drivers from the kind of momentary mistakes we walk away from today.

The electrical starter wasn't just a convenience but a dramatic improvement in safety: backfires could cause the crank to snap back and that would often break the wrist of the person trying to start their car. Even with electrical starters accidents still happened, and the aforementioned clutch safety switch was invented, preventing a car from being in gear when starting.

At least he wasn't the only one to make the mental lapse of leaving his car in gear while starting, and I take some small comfort in knowing his mistake wasn't unique:

KILLED BY HIS OWN CAR.

The New York Times
November 23, 1922

Machine of P. N. Holley of Bristol, Conn., Started as He Cranked It.

BRISTOL, Conn., Nov. 22.—Perry N. Holley, 54 years old, of this town, died at the Bristol Hospital tonight as the result of injuries he received two days ago when he was struck by his own automobile, which started while he was cranking it.

Holley was hurled against the side of his garage and was crushed.



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