Fast Facts: The 113-Year History of the Driver's License

Created in the 19th century, the driver's license has been the crucible through which all must pass in the quest for liberty. Who's still interested?

1899: The mayor of Troy, New York, writes a letter granting permission to operate a horseless carriage up to 6 mph on city streets. Chicago also requires certification to operate a steamer.

1900: Anne Rainsford French Bush obtains a steam engineer's license, entitling herself to operate a "four-wheeled vehicle powered by steam or gas," thereby becoming the first licensed woman driver. Life Magazine reported 52 years later that she never had a dent.

1903: New York, the first state to require the registration of motor vehicles (1901), now mandates an operator's certificate, costing $1, which must be carried when driving. A total of 2382 chauffeurs are licensed. Massachusetts and Missouri also require nominal licenses.

1904: The New York fee jumps to $2. Licensed chauffeurs must wear an oval badge when driving. Badges become common nationwide (and are today highly collectible).

1907: "Little attention has yet been paid to the right of any man to drive a car," opines the New York Times. "Something akin to the French system, which is the ideal plan of licensing drivers, furnishing them with official cards with the penalty of revoking the license in addition to a jail sentence for a second or third serious offense, must be enacted in this country."

1909: Pennsylvania sets the age restriction at 18 years for obtaining a license.

1910: The Callan Law requires annual registrations in New York state. Fees for pleasure vehicles range from $5 to $25, depending on horsepower. Twenty-thousand chauffeurs take the new road test, driving their own cars or one of the state's.

1913: New Jersey requires written exams ("seven or eight general questions") and road tests for licensees. "I confidently believe that other States will follow New Jersey's lead, and that the results will be fewer accidents and better road conditions," says Job H. Lippincott, motor vehicle commissioner.

1919: Michigan Governor Albert Sleeper pays fifty cents for his driving permit. Some 394,352 state residents soon apply for licenses at police stations or the Capitol. Linen-backed paper permits are renewable every year. In 1931, the period grows to three years.

1919: New York City requires all who drive more than ten days a year to have a license.

1921: Connecticut lets 16-year-olds take the wheel.

1924: New York State requires all drivers to be licensed. The next year, driver testing begins, and the newly created Bureau of Motor Vehicles counts 1.9 million drivers.

1926: Uniform Vehicle Code recommends the issuing of permits to 16-year-olds, who must drive in the company of a licensed adult.

1930s: Standardized driver-education courses develop.

1935: The Texas Department of Public Safety issues free licenses; after two years these expire, and the Texas-sized card (3.25 x 4.25 inches) costs 25 cents. It includes perforated sections for removal by the patrolman after any driving violations.

1949: When Bob Magenheimer shows up at Watkins Glen in his 1948 MGTC, an SCCA tech inspector asks for his competition license. "Rats," Magenheimer says, "I've wasted the entire drive from Indianapolis." "Not a worry," the inspector says, pulling a blank one out of his pocket. "Just write your name there." The SCCA's competition license now requires a street license, a medical exam, a drivers' school (minimum of six hours), and four novice races before obtaining national license.

1954: South Dakota becomes the last state to require driver's licenses.

1958: Photographs first appear on California driver's licenses.

1959: After 240 people die on South Dakota's roads, a written exam is implemented in the licensing process. Implied consent is also adopted, clearing the way for field sobriety tests. But a 14-year-old can get a license.

1964: Michigan adds a photo to the license. Bureau of Driver and Vehicle Services reports more than 6 million drivers.

1968: North Dakota's 14-year-olds now can keep pace with teeny-bopper peers to the south.

1972: Two years after allowing personalized plates, California adds color photos to licenses.

Mid-1970s: Texas adds photo to license for the first time.

1983: One-third of all licensed drivers are less than 30 years old.

1990: The magnetic stripe appears on California licenses.

1995: Florida enacts graduated driver's licensing for teens

2007: New York state has 11.3 million drivers.

Today:

  • Drivers may obtain a license as young as 14 years (multiple states) or no sooner than 17 years (New Jersey).
  • Driver education is required in 29 states (including Hawaii, although not on Maui or Kauai)
  • 95 percent of those in their late-50s and early 60s have a license
  • Enhanced drivers' licenses, which also prove citizenship, are increasingly available (Washington, Michigan, Vermont, and New York)
  • Only 22 percent of licensed drivers are less than 30
  • Only 75 percent of 19 year olds, and 49 percent of 17 year olds, have bothered to obtain a driver's license

-Ronald Ahrens

 

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