Red flag laws

Red flag laws

Red flag laws were laws in the United Kingdom and the United States enacted in the late 19th century, requiring drivers of early automobiles to take certain safety precautions, including waving a red flag in front of the vehicle as a warning.


In the late 19th Century, the introduction of the automobile resulted in opposition from special interest groups, including railroad corporations and stagecoach lines. These interests promoted legislation to regulate operation of motorized vehicles and prompted lawmakers to impose command and control policies under the guise of safety, with which to regulate behavior of, and impose nonpecuniary costs upon the motorists driving the new machines.

Red flag law in the UK

In the United Kingdom, the Red Flag Law, a policy requiring self-propelled vehicles to be led by a pedestrian, waving a red flag or carrying a lantern, to warn bystanders of the vehicle's approach. The Red Flag Law was repealed in 1896, by which time the internal combustion engine was well into its infancy. [Olyslager, 7 & 23]

Red flag laws in the US

In the United States, the state of Vermont passed a similar flurry of Red Flag Laws in 1894. The most infamous of the Red Flag Laws was enacted in Pennsylvania circa 1896, when Quaker legislators unanimously passed a bill through both houses of the state legislature, which would require all motorists piloting their "horseless carriages", upon chance encounters with cattle or livestock to (1) immediately stop the vehicle, (2) "immediately and as rapidly as possible... disassemble the automobile," and (3) "conceal the various components out of sight, behind nearby bushes" until equestrian or livestock is sufficiently pacified. [Olyslager, 7 & 23] The bill did not pass, as Pennsylvania's governor used an executive veto.

Modern derivatives of the Red Flag Law

Contemporary derivatives of the "red flag law" only exist in police tactics, whereby a highway patrolman or police officer, driving a police cruiser, or riding upon a motorcycle, positions him or herself in front of a collection of motorists, and throttle modulates (e.g., tactic known as "cracking the whip"), to impede the vehicles behind from achieving their natural mean velocity (e.g., rolling roadblock). A variation of this tactic, a traffic enforcement officer throttles down to an excessive high velocity in an unmarked vehicle, to lure motorists to travel into the Radar trap stationed just ahead, at a speed greater than the natural mean rate of velocity to which they gravitate, for the purpose of generating traffic ticket revenue (e.g., archetypical "ambush").


*Bailey, T., and Kennedy, D. "The American Pageant." Lexington: D. C. Heath, 1994.
*Olyslager, P. and Sir J. Brabham. "Illustrated Motor Cars of the World." New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1967.
*"The Underground California Highway Patrol Handbook".

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