From two-wheeled patrols to radar
Bob Witts on his Brough caught share of speeders

As OPP inspector, he led switch to new system
Jan. 7, 2006. 01:00 AM
ALLAN JOHNSON
SPECIAL TO THE STAR

Much controversy has been generated recently about Transport Canada's testing of a "spy in the sky" device that would use Global Positioning System technology to determine your car's speed and, if it were more than a few per cent above the posted limit, signal your car to baulk you from making it go any faster.

I don't know about you, but news of the government's new "Big Brother" approach to traffic speed control made me want to turn back the clock to the old days when regulating our use of the road was the traffic cop's job.

And I began to think of one constable in particular.

Now Gilbert and Sullivan's cops in the operetta The Pirates of Penzance sing that "A policeman's lot is not a happy one." That could certainly have been sung about the OPP motorcycle cops back in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

From 1930 to 1945, the Ontario Provincial Police did not even own any motorcycles for their Motorcycle Patrol Officers to ride. In a practice inherited from the days when the motorcycle-mounted Department of Highways patrolmen had to purchase and maintain their own mounts, the OPP paid their traffic patrolmen a dollar a day "depreciation allowance." It was never enough to buy and maintain their own motorcycles.

The Department of Highways patrolmen of the 1919-1930 period were concerned mostly with highway inspection and regulation of overloaded trucks and spent much of their time operating the weigh scales on the primitive roads of the day. In 1930, the whole highway patrol of more than 90 riders was reorganized as the OPP Motorcycle Patrol and stationed around southern Ontario to regulate all traffic on provincial highways.

One patrolman who made the switch to motorcycle cop was Bob Witts. After five years of World War I in the Canadian Artillery and post-war years as an auto mechanic, Bob had decided he needed an outside job and joined the highway patrol in 1928. In 1930, although much undersized to qualify as a policeman under normal circumstances, the OPP gave him a uniform, a badge and a revolver and he became a motorcycle cop.

Witts had purchased an Indian Chief motorcycle when he started patrol work, but the 700-lbs. (318-kg) V-twin was too slow to catch the car speeders on his Hwy. 3 patrol route west of St. Thomas. In 1933, he bought one of the first British Brough Superior motorcycles to be sold in Canada. The Toronto dealer who imported the Brough Superior was P.A. McBride, a firm still in business to this day.

Witts's 11-50 Police Special Brough was only 450 lbs. (205 kg), had 45 hp to the heavy Indian's 40 and could top 95 m.p.h. (153 km/h). At the time, the speed limit on the highways was 35 m.p.h. (56 km/h). Suddenly, Hwy. 3 from St. Thomas to Chatham became known as a place where you couldn't outrun the policeman.

Not all of Witts's motorcycle patrol activities were of such a serious nature as chasing speeders. Once he was called out to investigate an accident where a big U.S. touring car had hit and killed one of two sheep that were crossing the road. The car had then gone into the ditch. Witts arrived and found the uninjured sheep was an old ram, which kept chasing the men back into the car every time they tried to get out.

In an interview upon his retirement from the OPP in the 1960s, he was asked about teenage drivers back then. Witts said that "they were just the same then as now maybe worse. I was following a bunch of them who were in a Model T Ford, watching the back wheels wobble and thinking maybe I'd stop them and see that they got it fixed.

"All of a sudden the driver lifts off the steering wheel and gives it to the one sitting beside him. And he pretends he's steering for a while. The Ford starts heading for the ditch and he gets the wheel back on just in time. Well, I pop him down to the nearest garage and tell them to bring the welding torch out then and there."

Witts felt that "basically, I was not a policeman, because my sense of sympathy argued with my sense of duty. I'd rather see a fellow take $10 and get his brakes fixed instead of using the money to pay a fine for having bad brakes."

After his first Brough Superior, Witts exchanged it for another 11-50 in 1935. In 1936, he was one of the veterans who took part in the dedication of the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge in France. On his way home, through England, he stopped at the small Brough Superior factory in Nottingham and ordered a special new Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle to be shipped to him in Canada. It arrived in early 1937 and its 55 hp and 110 m.p.h. (178 km/h) top speed added to his traffic control reputation.

In 1939, another Brough Superior, this time an SS80 model was special-ordered by McBride for Witts. Mounted on it, he took part in escort duties during the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Not long after that, Witts was promoted to sergeant, supervising a number of motorcycle patrols. His fourth Brough Superior, now with a sidecar, was eventually replaced by an OPP-owned cruiser, as it became the policy during the war years to phase out motorcycle patrols and convert to patrol cars.

After World War II, Wittsrose in the ranks of the OPP Traffic Division, attended and graduated from Northwestern University Police Academy in Evanston, Ill. While there, he saw a new invention to regulate traffic speeds. On his return to Ontario, he became an inspector in the OPP and was responsible for advising the provincial government on traffic safety policy.

Eventually, he convinced the government to introduce the "Radar Speed Control System" into OPP traffic enforcement, although the judiciary of the time only consented to it if signs were posted indicating that such a system was in operation.

Bob Witts's career in traffic safety ranged from the time of patrolling the province's highways on his own thoroughbred Brough to the widespread adoption of the radar trap. He retired in 1963 and died in 1979.

I wonder what he might have thought of the proposed "Big Brother in the Sky" approach to improve traffic safety?

afjohnson@sympatico.ca

wheels@thestar.ca