Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Sunday Driver

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 24, 2010

When you’re in a vehicle following another that is holding up traffic because it appears to be driven aimlessly, with no destination in mind and very slowly, the driver of that vehicle is said to be a Sunday driver.

The Norwalk (Connecticut) Hour newspaper published an article on July 20, 1933 entitled, “Saturday Driver Worse Than Sunday.”  The article read in part:

Saturday, not Sunday, is the most dangerous day to operate an automobile on the highways of the state, statistics collected by the State Motor Vehicle Department show.  For long years, the “Sunday driver” has borne the blame of his fellow drivers as the cause of the most of the week end crashes.  Has the “Sunday driver” started driving Saturday since the depression?

Sunday drivers have been the bane of travellers around the world for a number of decades it would appear. In a letter to the Editor of the New York Times, J. Martin Haas wrote the following on October 12, 1932:

It has been my custom for a number of years to take my family each Sunday on little trips on the suburban roads surrounding New York City.  My observations made on these drives lead me to believe that the crying need is not for more traffic regulations but for education, if possible, of the so-called “Sunday driver” than which there is no greater menace.

Four years earlier on March 11, 1928, another New York Times reader wrote the Editor on the subject of the Sunday driver.  In his letter he stated:

The “Sunday driver” is, in fact, often a nuisance and sometimes a danger on the road. When father and the family pile into their Sunday-go-to-country car for the weekly outing, whoever drives –and it’s just as likely to be mother or daughter as father or son — may lack the calm assurance required.

A tongue-in-cheek piece was published in the Los Angeles Times on May 10, 1927 entitled “Traffic Rules for the Sunday Driver.”  It began with this:

On account of only taking out your car on Sundays, you are entitled to a lot of special privileges.  For one thing, you can drive anywhere on the road you please.  This entitles you to select your own ditch.

In 1898, Alexander Winton started selling the first commercially successful gasoline cars in the US.  By the end of 1899, he had sold 22 cars.  With only 22 cars on the roads entering the 20th century, Sunday drivers didn’t appear to be a concern to other drivers. 

By 1903, one could purchase a gas Oldsmobile for $650, a Stanley steam Runabout for $650, a Cadillac for $750, the first model A Ford for $750, and a Baker electric Runabout for $850.  Ten years later in 1913, Henry Ford began making his cars on assembly lines. 

This made the motor car more affordable to the average American.  Ford began paying his loyal employees $5 per day and the price of Ford cars dropped down to $290 per car.  That year, 250,000 Ford cars were sold!

With 97,225,000 Americans in the US in 1913, that meant that 1 in about 400 Americans owned a Ford vehicle.  As car manufacturing increased, so did the number of car owners. 

On July 18, 1917 the Chicago Daily Tribune carried a story about a William Butterfield Sunday entitled “Billy Sunday Hits Trail to Court; Driver Is Fined.”  The 96 word news bite read in part:

For violating a traffic ordinance, Motorcycle Officer Frank Ervin took Sunday and his car to police headquarters The case was booked in the name of William Butterfield Sunday.  He was fined and Sunday promised to pay more attention to traffic rules in the future.

Perhaps this is where the term “Sunday driver” originated however that is only conjecture on the part of Idiomation.

While the earliest published reference to a Sunday driver that Idiomation could find dated back to 1928, based on how the term was used in the New York Times letters to the Editor, it appears to have been a relatively new term that was entering the American jargon with great ease.  Somewhere in the 15 years between 1913 and 1928, the annoying and dangerous “Sunday driver” was born.

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