A Brief History of the American Driver’s License
Recently my daughter decided to delay getting her driving license. While it came as a surprise to me, it turns out that she may be part of a growing trend among young people in the United States of not rushing into getting a license. While many reasons to put off licensing have been suggested, such as the recession and changes in communication technology, so far there are no definitive answers. It isn’t even widely agreed that this is the beginning of a long term change, as opposed to a temporary blip in the history of licensing. Not too surprisingly, given the size and regional diversity of the United States, this trend varies by a number of factors, such as geographic region and family income. Clearly there is a cost to benefit calculation that must happen between how necessary a license is in an area, the expense of driving, and the increasing licensing hurdles that are thrown up in an attempt to make driving safer. All of these issues are food for thought, but I’d like to start off here with a simple history of the driver’s license in the United States.
In the U.S. driver’s licenses are issued by individual states and territories, as opposed to the federal government. This means that while there are some broad trends in the developments of licenses there is also a fair amount of variability in licensing history and requirements. (Links to the sources used for the history section are at the end of the post.)
New York was the first state to register automobiles in 1901. Licenses to operate vehicles came later. New York started issuing badges to chauffeurs in 1903. In that same year Massachusetts and Missouri became the first states to require all drivers, not just professionals, to have a license. Other states followed suit gradually. For example, New York state began issuing paper licenses with personal data and photographs in 1910, however there was no state-wide legal requirement for a driver’s license until 1924. The last state to require a license to drive was South Dakota in 1954.
It seems sensible to many people now that licensing and safety concerns went hand in hand. There’s some suggestion, though, that early safety legislation was aimed more at when and how vehicles could be used, rather than training drivers, themselves. For example, some counties in California passed ordinances requiring “motor wagons” to pull off the road when horse drawn vehicles approached, and prohibiting the use of motor vehicles at night. People were taught to drive by automobile salesmen and organizations like the YMCA, as well as by family and friends. Perhaps most telling, laws requiring people to pass an examination in order to drive often lagged well behind laws requiring a license. While Missouri was one of the first two states to require a license to drive in 1903, the state didn’t make people pass a driving exam until 1952. The earliest state mandated driving exam was in Rhode Island in 1908. The last state to require applicants to pass an exam? South Dakota in 1959.
In 1909 Pennsylvania was the first state to put an age restriction on driver’s licenses. It was an absolute minimum of 18 years of age. The first state to implement an early version of a graduated licensing system, in which younger teenagers could drive with certain restrictions, was Connecticut in 1921. 16 year olds were allowed to drive as long as they were accompanied by a licensed driver. New York State created a learner’s permit in 1925. It was good for three months and allowed the bearer to take instruction under the guidance of a licensed driver. Graduated driver licensing, or GDL, has become the norm in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, but minimum entry ages range from 14 to 16 and the length of the probationary period, amount of supervised driving required and restrictions vary drastically. The number of restrictions placed on provisional drivers and the requirements that must be fulfilled before applying for a full license began to increase dramatically in most states beginning in the 1990s.
Looking at this overview there are a few striking points. One is that the safety component of licensing drivers was not the principle concern until rather recently. The driver’s license has been largely a form of identification in the United States since its inception. One of the most obvious illustrations of this is the number of anti-counterfeiting devices incorporated into licenses beginning in the mid-1980s. The issue was not that people were creating fake licenses in order to drive. Rather young people were using modified or counterfeit licenses to enter bars or purchase alcohol after the drinking age was raised to 21. The driver’s license (not, say, passports or some other card) was accepted as the primary form of identification. There has also been a socio-economic aspect to driving from the beginning. Cars cost money to obtain, run and maintain. It’s worth considering the link between driving, household finances and the role of the license as a primary form of identification, especially in light of the recent demands for voter identification laws from some sectors.
Another interesting observation is how very recent the driver’s license is. Many Generation Xers viewed getting their first license as an almost immutable American rite of passage. In most states, however, the driver’s license test has been around for less than a century and has been morphing continuously. The stringency of graduated driver licensing requirements has increased dramatically over the last couple of decades. While this may be a good thing for safety, it puts extra financial and time burdens on the families of young drivers. The increase in GDL requirements comes at the same time that funding for public schools in many regions is dropping and driver’s education programs are being shifted to private companies. Not surprisingly, we see a difference in which teens put off getting a license by family income. A study by AAA showed that in families with an annual income of $60,000 or more, 60% of teens got their licenses within the first year they were eligible. Only 16% of teens from families making $20,000 or less got their licenses in that first year.
I can’t say that I’m entirely sorry that my own teen has decided to put off driving. After all, it’s risky business. At the same time, we’re fortunate that she can choose not to drive. We live in a place where she can get everywhere she needs to be by biking or taking public transit. This isn’t true for everyone, however, and the intersection between need for a car and the hurdles to getting a license does not fall equally on all young people.
featured image “69 chevy ad by: e r j k p r u n c z y k
1903 District of Columbia driver’s license from the National Museum of American History
1938 Ohio driver’s license from the National Museum of American History
1963 chevy impala by Insomnia Cured Here twm1340