When the Idaho Legislature gathered in Boise in January 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, automobiles had been licensed since 1913, but their drivers had not. In 1927 the Legislature adopted three of four motor vehicle acts introduced but defeated a measure to require driver’s licenses. Two of those passed were to license dealers of used vehicles and a “Uniform Motor Vehicle Anti-Theft Act” requiring that a “Vehicle Identification Number” (VIN) be assigned to all vehicles, to be placed on the motor or on the frame.
The report of a commission composed of prominent Idahoans James F. Ailshie, O.R. Baum and Oliver O. Haga was quoted at length in the Idaho Statesman on Jan. 11, 1929, explaining why the time had come, and was, in fact, long overdue, to require that all Idaho drivers be licensed. The headline on the story read “INCOMPETENTS AT CAR WHEEL MENACE PUBLIC.”
The 20th Session of the Legislature was urged to “Consider License Law in Harmony with Uniform Act in Other States.” The headline of a long story published two days later read “DRIVER LICENSE AVERTS CRASHES. Motor Industry and Automobile Associations Favor General Adoption of Such a Law.”
Reasons cited for enacting an Idaho driver’s license law in 1929 were listed: “Machines containing so much potential power for danger as the present-day high-powered motor vehicle should not be permitted on a public highway if operated by those who are physically or mentally incompetent or by drivers who are habitual drunkards or addicted to the use of narcotic drugs, or by those who are reckless to a degree clearly incompatible with the safety of others, or if operated by persons who cannot read or properly interpret the traffic and danger signals which the state maintains along its highways.”
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The conservative Idaho Legislature was not impressed with these arguments and refused to pass a law requiring driver’s licenses. It was not until 1935, after Democratic Gov. C. Ben Ross took the initiative and asked the 23rd Legislature to consider requiring driver’s licenses, that such a law was passed and took effect on July 1, 1935.
Those first licenses were valid for three years and cost just 50 cents. By 1967, when portrait photos appeared on licenses for the first time, the cost had risen to $6. In 2001, a four-year noncommercial license cost $24.50.
The dramatic increase in traffic fatalities, both nationally and in Idaho in the 20th century, led to the introduction of the seat belt and to laws requiring its use. Idaho’s seat belt law took effect on July 1, 1986, requiring “seat belt use for front-seat passengers and drivers, regardless of residency, in vehicles with a gross weight of 8,000 pounds or less that were manufactured with safety belts. The law is a “secondary” law and can only be enforced when someone is stopped for another traffic violation. Idaho’s child restraint law is a “primary” enforcement law.
Recent statistics on “Observed Seat Belt Use” compiled by the Idaho Transportation Department and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggest that seat belt use is far below what common sense would indicate: Of 237 motor vehicle occupants killed in the U.S. in 1999, for example, only 54 were using seat belts and 183 were not. Recent news reports of highway fatalities in Idaho all too often tell us “those killed or seriously injured were not wearing seat belts.”
Air bags were the next safety device to be researched. Patents were issued in 1953 to John W. Hetrick, an American, and Walter Linderer, a German. Ford, General Motors, and Mercedes-Benz all worked to improve air-cushion devices in the 1960s, and in 1973 the Oldsmobile Toronado became the first car equipped with a passenger airbag, and in 1974 dual airbags became an option on some American cars.
Inattentive driving had long been a major cause of automobile accidents, and the introduction and widespread use of the hand-held cellphone while driving has aggravated the problem, especially when their users text with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the device. On the plus side, the cellphone can be used to report accidents and crimes quickly, and even to photograph them.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.