Planes, Trains and Automobiles

25 February 2014

Well in fact, just automobiles …. as today marks the 115th anniversary of the first driver to die in a car accident. Edwin Sewell, a thirty-one year old engineer, was driving a six horse-power Daimler with five passengers when it crashed on Grove Hill, a steeply graded road on the northern slope of Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, now in north-west London.

Sewell applied maximum braking to slow the car, causing the rear tyres to separate from their wheels. The Autocar published on 4 March 1899 stated that the vehicle simply dropped to the ground, stopping suddenly, though other sources indicated that the car subsequently struck “a sturdy brick wall.” Whatever occurred, the vehicle clearly continued until it struck something which abruptly stopped its forward motion.

Edwin suffered head injuries and died immediately. One of his passengers – Major Richer – was thrown from the vehicle and died a few days later in hospital. The spot is now marked with a commemorative plaque.

The inquest into the two deaths focused on factors remarkably similar to those that would arise today. The book, Science Serving Society, states that:

‘…many questions were asked about driver alcohol consumption prior to the crash (no more than modest quantities were consumed, and well prior to the crash). Witnesses attested to the skill of the driver, one stating “he is a splendid driver.” However, based on testimony by many witnesses, the coroner advised the jury, “the car appeared to be going at too rapid a pace to be safe, either for the occupants themselves or the public.” The quality of the tires and the spokes of the wheel were criticized as contributory factors to the deaths.’

Edwin Root Sewell as buried 3 March 1899 at East Twickenham St Stephen (Source: London Metropolitan Archives, Saint Stephen, East Twickenham, Register of burials, DRO/090, Item 016):

31280_199423-00451 Edwin Root Sewell

Although Edwin is recognised as the first driver to die in a car accident, the first fatality in a steam-driven vehicle was Mary Ward who was reported to have fallen under a steam car in Ireland on 31 August 1869. In the UK, the first person to die in a petrol-driven car collision was a pedestrian, Bridget Driscoll, in 1896.

Heaven knows how many fatalities there have been since…. are there are studies relating to number of drivers versus number of fatalities? An interesting project….

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