A Short History of Highway and Vehicle Regulations


by Carl Watner
Number 92 – June 1998

The development of the automobile, in contrast to the history of the socialized roads upon which it runs, was largely a free market phenomenon. James Flink, a professional historian of the automobile, has noted that, “One must conclude that the development of adequate automobile roads lagged well behind the diffusion of the motor vehicle in the United States and that the automobile was widely adopted here despite the relative scarcity of suitable roads for its use. . . . American automobiles were improved much more rapidly than the streets and highways on which they were driven.” (Flink 211) after the first American gasoline-powered automobile was constructed by the Duryea brothers in 1893, car manufacturing operations began to spring up all over the country. Carriage makers, like the Studebaker Corporation (which claimed to be the world’s largest producer of horse-drawn vehicles at that time), as well as corner machine shops, had their fling at automobile production. Almost any one with mechanical ingenuity and machining facilities could get into operation by assembling the parts they had either purchased from others or made themselves, and tagging the end result with their own name. “Since the first Duryea, there have been a total of more than 2200 different makes of automobiles, of which only a handful have survived.” (Shank 52) Flink failed to observe that the reason that the average car improved much more rapidly than the average road was because of the presence of free market competition and the absence of State ownership of the firms that produced automobiles. It was the spirit of entrepreneurship and the absence of the State which propelled the development of the automobile, and the exact opposite which held back the development of American roads.

Nonetheless, the political governments of the time had to have their try at directly regulating and controlling the automobile. The legal system was used as a means of collecting royalties on the use of gasoline engines in automobiles by enforcing the Selden patent, but this effort was broken by Henry Ford in 1911. Actually, the turn of the century did not mark the beginning of political regulation of conveyances. Local and municipal governments were already regulating and licensing bicycle usage within their jurisdictions during the 1880s and 1890s. (Mason 42) For example, the city of Chicago had a “Wheel Tax” ordinance in effect in 1898, which required an annual license fee from all wagons, carriages, coaches, buggies, and bicycles. The year 1901 marked the first attempt at levying a registration fee specifically on autos (New York State – annual revenue for the year was U$954), and at the same time the first law regulating the speed of an automobile was passed in Connecticut (12 MPH in the country, 8 MPH in the cities). (Labatut 95, 99) By 1907, 31 States required registration of motor vehicles, the fees varying from 25 cents to U$25 per vehicle. (Dearing 250) The first traffic code in the world was adopted by New York City in 1903. (Labatut 454) Many “municipalities had their own ordinances regulating speeds, parking, the use of bells, horns and gongs, the making of unnecessary exhaust noise and the emission of noxious gas, smoke or steam, and they imposed fines for violations. These regulations varied widely from city to city and , especially in the smaller municipalities were often enforced in a discriminatory way.” (AMER. HWYS. 57, 60) “Speed traps” were often operated by local police officers in rural communities “with fines going into the local treasury or the pockets of the police, justice, or magistrate. The speed trap racket was so bad in New York prior to 1910, that the Legislature passed an act that year requiring all fines imposed for violations of the motor vehicle laws to be turned over to the State treasurer. This reduced the fines collected from motorists to a mere trickle.” (AMER. HWYS. 60) The effort to standardize traffic codes finally came to fruition in 1926, when a committee under Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover compiled the first national Uniform Vehicle Code. (Tyler 86)

Registration of motor vehicles with local governments often began on a voluntary basis; that is government offered a free service as an additional means of identifying one’s vehicle in the event of theft. “Registration of vehicles was often accomplished by a motorist selecting his own numbers and advising a local official that such numbers had been affixed to the vehicle – usually on a leather tag. The local official filed the record by name and by number. Duplications of numbers was avoided by a simple checking procedure . . . [However,] this method of registering vehicles was short-lived. . . . [L]ocal authorities secured the passage of ordinances . . . [and] some of these early enactments also granted regulatory powers. Thus, the basic pattern of motor vehicle administration was established and continued its growth to the present time.” (Labatut 442) The New York State law of 1901 did not require that vehicles be classed in any particular way. All vehicles paid the same fee. “The New York law was primarily a measure for legal control rather than for revenue, but in later years New York and other States collected sizable amounts of money in registration fees.” (AMER. HWYS. 57) Connecticut and Massachusetts passed similar legislation in 1903, requiring the registration of automobiles and motorcycles on a statewide plan. “Many of these early systems were conducted on a basis whereby a flat fee once paid effected registration for the life of the vehicle.” (Labatut 443) Registration fees were not the only motor vehicle imposts faced by early car owners. “Some cities and villages required the motorist to pay a ‘wheel tax’ of $10 to $20 per year for the privilege of driving on their streets. A number of States collected a personal property tax on the vehicle in addition to the registration fee.” (AMER. HWYS. 57)

The importance of registration as a means of taxing owners of motor vehicles for the “privilege” of being an owner was noted as early as 1903 in Horesless Age Magazine : “The Denver [Colorado] automobile ordinance has been of much assistance to the assessors of taxes, who have been enabled by means of the license requirements to identify and tax the owners [of vehicles]. Previous to its adoption, it is estimated that one-third of the automobiles in the city went untaxed.” (Vol. 11, May 6, 1903, p.564)

“Horace Dodge and Henry Ford lost a 1904 suit that they brought on behalf of Detroit’s motorists to test the constitutionality of that city’s registration ordinance. They claimed that the $1 fee constituted double taxation of personal property and that the ordinance was unjust ‘class Legislation’ because owners of horse-drawn vehicles were neither forced to carry identification tags nor deprived of the right to allow children under sixteen year’s of age to drive their vehicles.” (Flink 170) In April 1905, the city court of Detroit ignored the questions of taxation and held that the ordinance requiring registration and display of a license tag on each and every motorized vehicle was “a justifiable exercise of police power, in the interest of the safety of the travelling public.”

As soon a number of States had enacted registration laws, the question of reciprocity arose to plague motorists. In 1907, at least eight States extended no reciprocity at all to other States. (Dearing 250) “New York, the leader in the registration movement, allowed any vehicle to use its roads, provided the vehicle was registered in its own State, and provided that State granted the same privilege to cars registered in New York.” (AMER. HWYS. 57) By 1910, fifteen other States had reciprocity with New York, but this did not include New Jersey. “As a result, thousands of New Yorkers who had summer homes on the Jersey coast had to register their machines for the full year in both States. A similar relation existed with Massachusetts and 17 other States which did not grant full reciprocity.” (AMER. HWYS. 57) As a result of such lack of cooperation between the States, groups such as the American Automobile Association (1902) and the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce (1913) were organized. Both supported changes in the law that would have required Federal, rather than State, registration of all motor vehicles, in order to solve the problem of reciprocity among the States. This problem was ultimately overcome when all of the States accepted plans for mutual reciprocity.
[Editor’s Concluding Note: The above material was discovered while doing research on the history of roads and highways. It is undoubtedly sketchy and very incomplete. Since private ownership of the roads has never existed, it is difficult to imagine what provision property owners and insurance companies would make regarding the regulation and use of roads. One historical fact is certain. The population of the United States learned to drive cars without any assistance from the State.]

Short Bibliography available upon request.

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