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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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The Lake Success Horror VIII: Limits

The very phrase “speed trap” appears to have been invented in Nassau County. No fooling.

The Cocks automobile law of 1902 created New York’s first speed limits and the first penalties for driving too fast. Yet it was a huge disappointment to Nassau County State Senator William Willets Cocks, who considered the final version to be a gutted shell. He was disgusted enough that he would not commit to running for re-election until the last minute.

The bill, endorsed by newspapers around the state and wildly popular with many New Yorkers, flew out of committee and was expected to be passed by the Senate on Jan. 30. Just as the voting was about to start, a small group of Senators successfully pushed for the bill to be sent back to committee for more hearings. Back on the Senate calendar on February 20, the bill was called by the clerk and passed 48 to nothing. The same Senators, distracted and not recognizing the innocuous formal title of the bill, realized what had just happened, rushed the podium waiving typewritten amendments, demanding that the vote be revoked. After considerable and heated debate, and numerous huddles along the sides of the chamber, the bill was sent back to committee again.

It sure seemed that the bill was being delayed, either until the legislative session ran out or somebody somewhere decided what was going to be done with it.

Finally, the bill, much amended, was passed by the Assembly and then the Senate, and signed into law by Governor Odell on March 28. The law provided that motorized vehicles could not be run faster than eight miles an hour within incorporated cities and villages, and no faster than 20 miles an hour “in the country.” There was a maximum $50 fine for a first offense, and subsequent offenses could be punishable by fines and eventually by jail. Senator Cocks and others believed that $50 fine was no impediment to those who could afford automobiles, and that 20 m.p.h. was too fast. However, the worst part was that the Senate had removed any ability of towns to establish lower speed limits in “unincorporated villages,” where collisions were becoming too common.

North Hempstead, which had more automobiles than any town in the state, had no incorporated villages. East Rockaway, Freeport, Hempstead and Sea Cliff were the only incorporated villages in Nassau County. To Senator Cocks the new law practically gave permission to “the millionaire owners of automobiles” to “use the highways of Nassau County as a speedway at an expense of $50 when they are caught.”

Nevertheless, the law was effusively praised as important progress. In Nassau County, an impressive crusade against speeders was quickly organized, led by District Attorney James P. Niemann. A Democrat elected in the first Nassau County elections in 1898, he took on the cause of speeding automobiles with an incredible zeal. Rejecting Senator Cocks’ proposal to throw planks with sharpened spikes under “automobile scorchers,” Niemann organized teams of deputy sheriffs, town constables and volunteers to mark eighth and quarter miles along popular roads and to time passing drivers. Using a system of signals, those calculated to exceed the speed limit were flagged down. A furniture truck was stationed nearby and could be moved to block the road if a driver didn’t stop. Offenders were hauled to the home or office of the nearest Justice of the Peace for disposition.

Niemann only had one Assistant District Attorney, and he deputized local lawyers as temporary prosecutors to handle the load. The region’s newspapers recorded the names and addresses of the violators, most of whom simply paid the fine and left (a few were allowed to only give their name as “John Doe”). Others paid a cash bond and came back within a few days for trial. The first day, they got seven speeders on one stretch of Merrick Road near Freeport, several of them on motorcycles. Justice Wallace was standing right there, and five immediately handed over fines ranging from five to fifteen dollars.

Senator Cocks, disillusioned with Albany, had not foreseen what cage his bill would accidentally rattle, and why powerful forces wanted “scorchers” on New York roads.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net