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The Red Flag Act

Blog post by Emilio Kyprianou

In the realm of legal history, the story of the 19th-century ‘Red Flag Act’ holds profound lessons for the ever-evolving intersection of law and technology.

As the industrial revolution gained momentum, the advent of the automobile era sent seismic ripples through traditional industries.[1] In order to protect existing industries, like stagecoaches and trains, the United Kingdom made a series of laws between 1861 and 1878. The most famous of these was the Locomotive Act 1865, known as the ‘Red Flag Act’ because it had some unusual rules which served a crushing blow to the early automobile industry.[2]

The Birth of the ‘Red Flag Act’

In the mid-19th century, the stagecoach and particularly locomotive industries found themselves on uncertain ground, facing the looming spectre of the automobile's disruptive potential.[3] They were afraid the car would replace them. So, they worked hard to convince the government to make strict laws, like the 1865 Act. This restricted the speed (of horse-less vehicles) to 2mph in towns & 4mph in the country. The Act also required three drivers for each vehicle – two to travel in the vehicle and one to walk ahead carrying the infamous red flag.  It was finally repealed on 14 November 1896, when the Locomotives on Highways Act scrapped the flag and raised the speed limit to 14mph. In Vermont, the U.S state passed a similar law in 1894 but was canceled two years later. It required a person to walk ahead of steam-powered vehicles, except road rollers, to warn people. Trains were exempt from this law.[4]

Challenges of Self-Driving Cars

Fast forward to the 21st century, and we are witnessing another technological revolution, this time with electric self-driving cars at the forefront. Just as the ‘Red Flag Act’ sought to hinder the automobile's ascent, today's legal and regulatory landscape in its current form poses a formidable challenge for autonomous vehicles.[5] The Law Commission has recommended the implementation of stringent regulations before permitting remote-driven vehicles on UK roads.[6] While remote-driven cars have already seen use in warehouses and farms, public road trials have taken place in Milton Keynes and Coventry, there is clearly much work to be done.[7]

History cautions us against propping up declining industries with artificial life support, for it is in the swift demise of the old that the seeds of the new economy and competitive prowess are sown. Technology allowed us to extricate ourselves from Whale-fat lamps to the era of electrical  illumination, we find ourselves undergoing a similar transformation where fossil fuels shall relinquish their role in powering automobiles, yielding once again to the dominance of electricity.

Let the ‘Red Flag Act’ be a testament to the perils of resistance to change and a clarion call for adaptability in the face of technological evolution.[8]

The ‘Red Flag Act’ serves as a stark reminder of how industries, when confronted with technological progress, may attempt to lobby for restrictive legislation to protect their interests, often disguising them as measures for the greater good. Balancing innovation with the preservation of public interests necessitates a careful and vigilant approach to law and regulation, ensuring that lobbyists do not unduly influence new laws as we welcome the future of the automobile.


[1] Clegg, A. Anthony. The Era of the Automobile Revisited 1867-1938. Page 59

[3] Richardson, Kenneth (1977). The British Motor Industry 1896-1939. p.33. ISBN 9780208016973.

[5] Swiping left: MPs warn ministers are slowing down UK self-drive car progress accessed 16/9/2023

[6] Automated vehicles: joint report The Law Commission 2022

[7] Connected & Automated Mobility 2025: 1.2.2 A Transport Revolution Page 19 Realising the benefits of self-driving vehicles in the UK. Government Report. accessed 16/9/2023

[8] Remote-driven cars raise safety fears as legal experts call for ‘robust’ new rules accessed 18/9/2023


image Emilio Kyprianou

Emilio Kyprianou

Emilio is a second-year LLB Law student at The Open University and in his spare time enjoys off roading ATV’s and motorcycles.