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115 years of Licenses

Aug 18, 2016.

We need licenses for everything these days—to cut hair, teach dance, sell lemonade…and especially, drive a car. But it wasn’t always that way. The Driver’s License evolved along with the car.

In 1901, there were fewer than 1000 cars in New York State—out of 8000 nationwide—when it became the first to require vehicle registration. And looking back on it, one wonders why: after all, no one ever had to register his horse. Even so, a driver’s license was not required until two years later, and then it only applied to professional drivers. Anyone with a car in 1903 would have had a chauffeur.

That same year Massachusetts and Missouri became the first states to require all drivers to have a license. In 1910, New York State began issuing driver’s licenses in 1910, but they were optional till 1924. A strange state of affairs in our opinion: during Prohibition, you weren’t allowed to drink, but you were allowed to drive without a license. In South Dakota, you didn’t need a license till 1954.

Photos weren’t included till 1984, and this had nothing to do with driving. That year the federal government passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which withheld highway funds from any state that didn’t raise its drinking age to 21. 49 states complied. (Guess who held out?)

But even after licenses were required, the process by which they were awarded was somewhat informal for many years. Often it was the car salesman who rode with the teen around the block and pronounced him or her fit to drive. Not much conflict of interest there.

Written tests came slowly after driving tests – once again South Dakota brought up the rear by finally requiring a written test in 1959 – but for years, it wasn’t at all clear what a driver was supposed to know. Red-yellow-green traffic lights weren’t implemented till the late 20s. Singles lines, dotted lines, double lines, turn lanes, road signs…all evolved over the first half of the 20th century as car ownership exploded from 8,000 in 1900 to 40 million in 1950.

That was when states began to establish the dreaded DMV, which would manage licensing, registrations & license plates, fines, parking tickets, etc. The first parking meters were installed in Oklahoma City in 1935. The first speed-trap cameras were installed in Friendswood, TX in 1986.

With all this chaos, you can imagine the carnage. Motor vehicles deaths soared through the years, peaking at 56,000 in 1972. But since then, improvements in vehicle safety have brought the total down around 34,000. There’s been a slight uptick in recent years, which many attribute to the use of electronics, specifically phones, while driving. They estimate that 3,179 people were killed in 2014 due to distracted driving, but the number is certainly higher.

Next we’ll need a license to use our phones…

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