Then and Now: Crime, Speeding Cars, and How to Stop Them

Motor cars have been used for crime since their earliest pre-First World War development. However, with the rapid rise in car ownership it was the interwar period that saw public and political concern rise significantly. Fears about criminal use of motor cars became focused on the idea of the ‘motor bandit’, an emotive and flexible label for any driver wanted for a serious crime.

One of the important issues for police was how to stop a speeding car that was going to be, or more likely had been, used for crime.

A barricades committee was given a remit to devise a barrier that would be obstructive, simple and quick to set up and take down by no more than two constables, could obstruct the footway as well as the carriageway, and be distinctive to an approaching driver without being obvious from a distance (otherwise ‘the bandit’ would just turn around).

Tests of spiked mats were held at the London General Omnibus Company depot in Chiswick on 21st August 1928 under the auspices of the Daily Mail. Coverage in the newspaper heralded the tests a success but the Metropolitan Police found the mats wanting. Specifically, spiked mats were felt to be inefficient against the bandit in a stolen car, who could just escape on foot, but possibly more effective against the ordinary ‘road hog’ using his own car.

Whether motor bandit or ‘road hog’, the safety of the occupants of targeted cars was also an important consideration as was that of the safety of pedestrians or occupants of other vehicles; this ruled out the use of wire ropes across the road.

The problem of how to apprehend criminals travelling at speed was born in the 1920s but is a live issue a century later. Indeed, many earlier physical methods have been refined and enhanced using technology. Some remain familiar such as the stinger (or spike strip), a device designed to puncture the tyres of vehicles to slow or stop them. Talon, a net with steel spikes that become entangled around front wheels can be deployed by two people in less than a minute. Like much recent road control technology the latter was developed to prevent terrorism, a threat that was also experienced during the interwar era.

The 1920s barricades committee highlighted the difficulties of stopping motor vehicles using barriers and cordons when traveling criminals could change their route readily. The current security cordon around the City of London makes use of narrowed roads, chicanes created by concrete blocks, and police guards to monitor traffic – all of which are reinforced by digital CCTV recordings of traffic and 24-hour automated number plate recording. This has been termed ‘fortress urbanism’.

The friction between interventionist policing methods and public and police safety also endures as revealed in recent criticism about the dangers of police cars hitting (making ‘tactical contact’) suspected offenders on mopeds or motorcycles. This debate goes directly to a long-established core issue of policing: the balance between their purposeful physical intervention on the roads, the impact on suspects and the potential collateral damage experienced by others. After 100 years, it seems this debate is not over.

Alyson Brown, is Professor of History and Associate Head of Department at Edge Hill University.

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