A hundred years ago, the first road tax dodger was taken to court. Jonathan Sale charts the history of the motoring misdemeanour
Failing to pay the road tax, which the Department of Transport, it was announced last week, will shortly punish by wheelclamping, is literally the oldest offence in the bad driver's book. It goes back exactly a century. On 17 October 1895, a Mr John Knight of Farnham, Surrey, committed the first motoring offence or, at least, the first to result in an actual summons. He failed to obtain a licence for his "locomotive", which was in addition "working during prohibited hours".

The locomotive was not one of the rail variety but a petrol-driven three- wheeler that, as with many early models, possessed, instead of a steering wheel, a tiller arrangement like a boat's. Knight had designed it himself and was watching his co-defendant, James Pullinger, tacking the vehicle up and down the street. Licences, the equivalent of the road tax disc, were compulsory under a local bylaw, which also restricted the times when vehicles could be driven. Guilty as charged on both counts, the defendants were fined just half-a-crownplus costs; it was, after all, not only their first offence but anybody's first offence behind the wheel (or tiller).

Since vehicle tax evasion costs the country an annual pounds 163m,those defendants now represent very small beer. Similarly, when it comes to large beer, or beers, today's motorists shunt their predecessors into the shade. When you condsider that there were 91,200 convictions for drunken driving in 1993 (down from 113,200 in 1990), it is astonishing how long this offence took to make an impact on the criminal statistics.

In 1894, there were just two motorists in Britain, both of them stone- cold sober. By the end of 1895, there may have been as many 20 vehicles on the roads; again their drivers gave every appearance of avoiding the demon drink. It was as late as 1925 that the drunken driving legislation even mentioned "any mechanically powered vehicle". Before that, penalties were imposed under a legal clause that also covered being tipsy in charge of a cow or steam engine.

Historians had to wait until September 1897 for the first drunken motorist to be convicted. Cabbie George Smith, who later admitted to having had a couple of glasses of beer, suddenly found that Bond Street had become very narrow. No wonder: he had driven his electrically powered taxi up the pavement and into the front corridor of Number 165. The Marlborough Street beak fined him a swingeing pounds 1.

This contrasts with the gentle rap on the knuckles administered for the first conviction for speeding. Walter Arnold, a Kentish miller, was fined one shilling (5p) in January 1896 for driving at four times the speed limit. Since the restriction for a built-up area was only 2mph, that charge was not as serious as it sounds. But Arnold's breakneck speed past a policeman's house had been enough to drag the constable away from his dinner and on to his bike. There were no speed-cameras to verify it (the first conviction based on a radar trap was not until 1959), but a witness said that Arnold touched 8mph during the five-mile chase before being finally overhauled by the bicyclist in blue.

Arnold was so thrilled by his Mr Toad-like experience that he abandoned milling for motor manufacture. By the end of the year he was responsible for Britain's first petrol-driven car manufactured for sale. He sold it to an engineer who fitted it with the world's first self-starter.

Since Arnold's case, speeding convictions have rocketed. Although they are now falling, the latest figures still exceed 100,000.

Fortunately, there is one category of offence whose numbers have tumbled since the dawn of motoring: frightening the horses. In the United States, this was taken so seriously that some states insisted on drivers not only giving way to equine traffic but also dismantling their vehicles and hiding the parts in the hedge. In 1906, the first American motorist to be fined for this offence committed it while simultaneously clocking up another first - driving up Broadway. He terrified so many horses that he faced damages of $48,000, which even today would pay for a decent car with enough left over for the tax disc.