Driving Spanish

February 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

(This is about the most obscure title I have ever come up with for one of my ramblings in aphasia, but I love the sound of it. It derives from the phrase, “walking Spanish,” which appears in the penultimate paragraph below. The origins of the phrase are obscure and its meanings are many, but two of them pertain [1] to the final walk to the execution chamber and [2] walking in an ungainly, undignified manner, both of which apply somewhat to today’s subject: bad driving.)

Austin proudly proclaims itself the Live Music Capital of the World, But we are also arguably, if not the worst driver capital of the world, the worst driver capital of Texas and perhaps the United States. Anecdotal evidence provided me by hundreds of disgruntled out-of-towners over the years is damning enough to suit me, but then there are the studies …

A November 2011 study by CarInsuranceComparison.com ranked Texas as having the third worst drivers in the U.S. CarInsuranceComparison.com based the study on drunk driving, failure to obey signals, fatalities and traffic tickets. Missouri and Louisiana were the only two states that ranked worse than Texas.

Excessive speed and reckless driving are common factors in wrecks, drunk driving arrests, failure to obey signals, fatalities and traffic tickets.

According to the 2007 Allstate America’s Best Drivers Report, Austinites got into more crashes than drivers in any of the 20 other Texas cities on the list. Austin ranked 179 out of 197 cities nationwide and Austin drivers were 31% more likely to get into a crash than the average American driver.

Texas drivers were among the worst in the country, and Austin drivers were among the worst of the worst, according to a 2005 Allstate Insurance survey. Austin residents went, on average, only 7.5 years between automobile crashes, as opposed to the nationwide average of 10 years. The survey looked at policies in 197 cities across the country and how often the policyholders reported accidents. Austin came in at 176 among all locations.

The surveys did not include bicyclists, many of whom are as scofflaw as Austin automobilists and motorcyclists, but the bikies mostly confine themselves to the minor but annoying offenses of failure to obey traffic signals and yield right of way.

Bad driving in Austin did not begin with the automobile, although cars have certainly accelerated the problem. Bad driving is part of the DNA of Austin, so let’s go back to the “good old days” when the weapons of Austin’s speedsters and bad drivers had four legs and single tailpipes that dumped their pollution directly onto the streets.

Two colored females of the fast order” got on a little spree on February 22, 1874, and procuring a buggy, started out for a ride. They started up Congress Avenue driving from right to left, at a furious rate, not only whipping their own horse but every one they came across on the street. In their sudden turns one of them was thrown out and captured by the police; the other started at full speed up the Avenue, and was captured near the Capitol grounds by a policeman. They answered before his Honor the Mayor the next morning in city court for their little spree.

Fast riding generally set you back $5 and costs then, as did riding on the sidewalk. By the late 1880s, the fine had risen to $10 and costs.

An Austin Statesman reporter was passing along Cedar street on February 24, 1880, where the city railroad turned to approach Pecan street, when he noticed a little boy about ten years old driving a small spring wagon. There was a little girl apparently six years old seated in the wagon with him, and when they reached the city railroad, the horse refused to go forward and became decidedly balky. The little boy used the whip freely notwithstanding the horse made dangerous plunges, and at times it seemed he would overturn the wagon. He at last got his steed turned in the direction of the Central freight depot, and suddenly started off at a breakneck speed, and the reporter was confident for a time that the wagon would be upset and the children severely injured if not killed outright, but fortunately the horse, after running a short distance, slowed up and his little driver got him under control. The reporter could not learn to whom the horse belonged, but one thing was certain, he was not a safe horse for children to drive. “Parents should be more cautious,” he concluded.

As we know, not every driver takes a shine to being arrested, especially when under the influence. Back on February 26, 1880, a man named Boyce, brother of Rube Boyce, a famous stagecoach robber who had escaped from the Travis County jail back in early January, took it upon himself to do some remarkably fast riding upon Congress Avenue, which being contrary to law, Officer John Chenneville promptly arrested him, and was proceeding on foot with the prisoner up the hill to the mayor’s office, when Boyce suddenly struck him over the head with a quirt and, jerking loose, made tracks in direction of the river, with the officer in hot pursuit. Just as Boyce got opposite the new post office, he discovered a horse hitched and was about to mount, when Chenneville, who had been close upon his heels, came up and again took the gentleman in charge and locked him up, and the next morning he figured in the mayor’s court, charged with fast riding and resisting an officer. Officer Chenneville was well armed at the time Boyce struck him and escaped, and had he followed a well-established custom, Chenneville would have shot him down, surrendered to some other officer, been tried, released and looked upon by the rising generation as a hero and a fit example to be followed. But he didn’t do all this, and, the Statesman pronounced, “certainly deserves the praise of our citizens, and it is hoped that in the future his example will be followed by all other officers.”

Reese Erwin, a gay (not that kind of “gay”) young man of some 20 summers, made a night of it one Saturday evening in May 1880 and along about the wee small hours was having an exceedingly lively time down in Guytown. He first visited the establishments that flourish in that locality, and then got in a hack and went home where he procured a horse, and mounting him imagined that he was a valiant knight of old and set out to do mighty deeds and courageous exploits. This, of course, was entirely out of his line of business, and he made a miserable failure and had to content to himself with riding his horse at breakneck speed and firing his pistol as he went. Sunday, to his very great astonishment, he was arrested and locked up, and the next day a jury, composed of Austin’s best citizens, found him guilty of firing a pistol within the city limits, and assessed his punishment at a fine of fifteen dollars and costs. There were two other charges against him, one for carrying a pistol and the other for fast riding. His was one of two arrests that month for “riding in a gait faster than a walk.”

John Craft, a Mr. Finley, and a Mr. Strudenhorn, three young men from the country, were in town on August 5, 1880, and took in the sights, which so elated Officer Johnson that he expressed his admiration for the aforesaid young men by taking them in hand and comfortably storing them away at the police station. It seems the above men were impressed with the idea that they couldn’t take in this city in fine style without the cheerful assistance of John McLaughlin’s carriage. They procured it, and were suddenly seized with the brilliant idea of getting two damsels of color from Guytown to ride with them. They procured two and were riding around the city at a lively rate when arrested by Officer Johnson. The two females were also locked up, and they and the three young men played an important part the next morning at the mayor’s matinee.

H. Walters and A. Horne, two festive cowboys, were in town in late November 1880, and filled up with soda water, beer and such things and made the streets lively by riding at a rapid gait through them. They pled guilty and each was fined ten dollars and costs.

Then as now, the streets of Austin were dangerous for pedestrians. A little boy, the son of a mechanic living adjoining the “Two Brothers Saloon” on Colorado street, on the evening of May 13, 1881, came very near being crushed to death under the heels of a horse in front of Cloud & Devers livery stable. The young man who was riding the horse was moving at a slow gallop, when a delivery wagon passed at full speed. The boy in dodging the wagon ran immediately in front of the horse, when he was knocked over. He was picked up by his father senseless and bleeding at the mouth, and carried home. His injuries, though severe, were not dangerous, and in a day or so he was out and about again. Boys should be careful how they play in the streets.

While men made up the majority of fast-paced offenders, women were also possessed by the speed demon, as we have already seen. In early June 1881, two of the female denizens of Guytown, for being drunk and indulging in fast riding, were fined $14 each by his honor, the mayor, the next morning.

During August 1882, city police made 167 arrests; 125 convictions were obtained, as follows: Intoxications 39, disturbing the peace 55, sleeping in public place 9, carrying pistol 6, vagrancy 4, offensive language 5, interfering with an officer and resisting arrest 4, exposure of person 3, discharging firearms 1, fast driving 1.

Despite only one conviction for fast driving that month, the Austin Statesman was prompted to write on September 24, 1882, “Fast driving for some time has been an intolerable nuisance, and many persons have barely escaped being run over and seriously injured. The city authorities have determined to rightly enforce the ordinance against fast driving, and the lightning-like jehus had better be careful, especially when driving on Pecan street and the Avenue.”

Unlike automobiles, horses have minds of their own, and runaways were a common problem, like this one in October 1883: “Old Peter,” as he was called – and no one seemed to know him by any other name – had a furious runaway one day on Pecan street. His team got away and ran down the street at a fearful speed. They came near running into Jack O’Brien’s hack, but fortunately he got out of the way of them. Strange, but lucky, to say they were stopped without any damage being done.

We’ll close today with a rather humorous, though painful incident. While Austin streets and highways by no means resemble those of Los Angeles, in terms of million-dollar cars, the town is increasingly full of expensive four-wheeled geegaws driven by people with more money and hubris than sense. Vehicular self-indulgence was no different in the 1880s, for the few folks rich enough to indulge in exotic forms of wheeled transport.

A couple of those lucky men were Alex Sweet and J. Armoy Knox, founders of the wildly successful humor weekly located in Austin, Texas Siftings. We’ll let the Austin Statesman tell the story of the object of their affection and subsequent disaffectation:

April 17, 1883


The Sifters have introduced the Dublin two wheel gig here, as everybody knows. It is made for the purpose of giving people an artificial case of St. Vitus dance. Well, Sunday the Sifters were out riding in the gig, and were going along at a fine speed, jerking and jolting the liver and bile machinery of Mr. Knox up in such a way that was an unsanctified terror to all liver medicines. Just as they were rolling down Magnolia Avenue, the dreamy reverie of the Sifters was disturbed. In fact, the thread of their mental discourse on the legislative investigation committee was abruptly broken. The Sifters were lowered in the estimation of a hitherto too-confiding world of at least four feet. Both wheels came off the gig, and the Sifters came down on a stump. If they preferred a seat on a stump to one in the gig, the horse did not understand matters, for he moved the crowd onto a big rock and leaned them against it hard; and before they could be comfortable, the horse hurried on to the next stump, and then, to save more rocks, lifting the Sifters up and sitting them down again in a very italicized manner. This made the Sifters mad, and they tried to coax the horse to stop, as he began to be in a big hurry.

The horse ran into a deep cut, and had to stop; and the Sifters got out, walked Spanish, and put the horse in Mrs. Bostick’s yard till they could get patched up and call for him. The wreck of the old gig is down there yet. Any farmer wanting a hen’s nest apparatus can apply to the Siftings office.

Stay sane and drive safe now, y’all hear?



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