Dangerous cars, or dangerous drivers? 19th-century style

In 1867, says the Illustrated London News, 170 people in London were killed by  vans, omnibuses, cabs and carts. Well, actually what it says is, 170 people were killed by ‘van-drivers, and omnibus-men, and cabmen, and carters’.

I find that striking. Today we say someone was killed in an ‘accident’, ‘killed by a car’. It is impersonal, passive. An ‘accident’ could happen to anyone, and it’s no one’s fault; the car, presumably, just suddenly took it into its little internal-combustioned head to leap out and attack someone.

The Victorians had it right: people are killed by other people, by the drivers of buses and carts and cabs, not by the inanimate objects they control, or fail to control.

I wonder if our attitudes to the inevitability of road accidents would alter if we stopped using inanimate objects as proxies for our own mad, bad or careless behaviour.

*Gets down off soapbox*


  1. chris hughes

    March 22, 2011 - 2:54 pm

    Er……just to point out that Victorian cabmen, carters, etc weren’t in charge of ‘inanimate objects’ but very animate ones, namely horses, which can be very unpredictable. Around the age of 13, back in the early 60’s, I desperately wanted a horse (blame it entirely on reading horsey books) which was never going to happen, living as we did in a tiny terraced house in Peckham! But I did say to my mum one day how good it would be to have horses and carts back, to which she replied that it was terrifying to see a horse out of control careering down the road and she’d seen some awful accidents when she was young.

    In my family we had a saying – if a child was having a tantrum, ‘showing off”, and generally being a pain, someone would say they had a ‘temper like a cab horse – they’d shit and stamp in it’ (sorry about the language). I never heard it anywhere else but know cabhorses had a reputation for being mean and nasty, and cabdrivers weren’t much better. One of my gt gt grandfathers, the splendidly named Henry Ethelred West, was a cabdriver, as were his many sons, so it may have been something handed down from them. I love the alteracation between Mr Pickwick and a cabman in the first chapter of Pickwick Papers – and always imagine my gt gt grandad to be something along the lines of Tony Weller:)

  2. inspectorbucket

    March 23, 2011 - 8:36 am

    Yes, I agree, but all the same the 19th-century journalist didn’t blame the horses, he blamed the drivers, and he must have had far more experience of animal-led transport…
    And Henry Ethelred West *is* splendid.