|Car accident, ca 1919. Library of Congress.|
As the number of automobiles on the nation’s roads increased after about 1900, so did the frequency of accidents and traffic fatalities. Towns and states had laws meant for horse-drawn vehicles, but these were inadequate to insure safe auto traffic. In fact, many jurisdictions saw cars as a source of revenue. The New York Times complained (August 18, 1907), “In dealing with the automobile speed problem, the police are not attempting to save human life, but to collect money.”
Massachusetts was the first state to license drivers, in 1903. By 1910, most of the populous states in the Northeast had license laws. The one exception was New York (it did begin licensing chauffeurs in 1910). However, New York City joined the general licensing trend in 1917.
Localities or states had required licenses for the motor vehicles themselves almost from their first appearance. Idaho passed such a law in 1913. An article in the Idaho Register (Idaho Falls, April 11, 1913) noted that the legislature had decided that “motor vehicles are a luxury … [so] those who are so fortunate as to possess cars should pay for the privilege.”
License fees varied according to the horsepower of the vehicle, starting at $15 for less than 30 horsepower, rising to $40 for more that 50 horsepower. The Register wryly observed, “There is likely to be a decided shrinkage in horse-power, and cars which have been bragged on as 40 horse-power will likely be classed as lower power cars.”
However, there was no such documentation for drivers, so so-called “scorchers” had only to keep paying fines when snared by a speed trap. Only if the speeder forgot, and got caught in the same jurisdiction, would a traffic court know he was a repeat offender. (And maybe not even then, if the constable and judge were different.)
It should come as no surprise that car salesmen were among the worst offenders. Prospective buyers wanted to know how fast a vehicle could go. A “demonstrator” interviewed for the Times article above said, “I cannot sell a car if I let some rival come along and pass me on the road.”
|Many Cars Along Broadway, Idaho Falls, 1930s. Bonneville County Historical Society.|
Over a decade passed before new legal provisions required drivers to show proof of “financial responsibility,” the early form of today’s auto insurance requirement. Idaho began requiring a driver’s license examination in 1951. It was among the last half-dozen states to do so.
|References: “Idaho’s Motor Vehicle History,” Idaho Department of Transportation.|
|Timeline: 1800s, 1900s, The Center for Transportation and the Environment, North Carolina State University, Raleigh (2009).|
|“Driver Licensing,” Highway Statistics to 1995, U. S. Department of Transportation (April 1997).|