The History of Driving Laws (1901-1960)

Driving laws are now a huge part of keeping the roads safe. In the twenty-first century, there are laws and rules for every move we make behind the wheel. After all, car accidents top the death charts year after year. (See the top 10 worst driving states in America.)

From “no right turn on red” signs to speed limit signs and everything in between; there is a law for just about everything you can do in a vehicle. Check out sites like this one for more details on federal and state laws you may not be aware of.

I know I’m not the only one that has thought, “Who invented this law? It makes no sense.” If you’re with me, this article will show some of the oldest laws of the road and the history of where traffic laws were made and when they first became a part of our lives.

Sit back, keep your eyes on the road, and drive through the history of traffic laws. 

In the Beginning…

The old German engineer, Karl Benz, developed the first motor vehicles for the world in 1886. By doing so, he ushered in a change more drastic than the world has ever seen. Once automobiles were made and owned by not only the wealthiest of people but by many others, roads and traffic began to become an issue. 

To respond, in 1901, the state of Connecticut created the first statewide traffic laws. However, the laws only regulated vehicle speeds. The limits were 12 MPH on city streets and 15 MPH on country roads. (Quite primitive compared to our 75 MPH interstates). There were no other laws put into place. 

Before 1930, there were thousands of cars on the road creating what would be one of the most dangerous times America had ever seen. According to the Detroit News, the early traffic years of the twentieth-century were lawless. It was a bloody mess that resulted in thousands of deaths just within the city limits. 

Though there were now hundreds of thousands of cars flooding the streets of America, there were absolutely no street signs, street lights, road laws, traffic signals, brake lights, drunk driving laws, the list goes on. The streets were complete chaos. 

Traffic Laws

In 1930, the three-way traffic light was introduced across the entire United States. As a matter of fact, the traffic light has hardly changed in the eighty-plus years it has existed. In 1930 it consisted of the same “green means go, yellow means slow, and red means stop,” that it contains today. 

One of the biggest safety features and concerns of today’s vehicles is a seat-belt. You may be shocked to learn that the seat-belt was not developed until 1950! The 1950 Nash Airflyte was the first American made vehicle to contain safety-belts. Not even a year later, air-bags were also put into place, making what resembled the cars of the twenty-first century. 

Perhaps the most important moment in traffic law history, the Department of Transportation was born in 1966. Their mission was to “Serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future.” 

This motto still rings true and is the reason our roads are safer than they have ever been. In a mere 30 years, the safety of roadways and interstates changed drastically thanks to traffic laws being implemented. 

History of Drunk Driving Laws

Though many safety hazards have been avoided since the implementation of thousands of road laws, drunk driving is still one of the main concerns for the Department of Transportation and the rest of the United States. According to the DOT, there was an alcohol-impaired traffic fatality every 48 minutes in 2017. 

In 1910, New York developed the first laws against driving after drinking. The punishment was a $1,000 fine and jail time. This began a revolution of trying to solve the problem that still persists today. 

In 1936, Robert Borkenstein invented what he called the “drunkometer”. Borkenstein’s invention was a balloon looking device that determined if a driver was drunk or not. The device needed to be more precise, so in 1953 Borkenstein created the “breathalyzer” that we know today. It began with a .15 BAC being the legal limit, but in 1960 was determined to be too high and was brought to the .08 BAC level the U.S. uses today. 

Drunk driving is still an issue, but laws will continue to get more and more strict. As of recently, there is now a “buzzed” driving limit of .05 BAC. With this law in effect, you can still be ticketed heavily even after drinking what may seem like a small amount of alcohol. 

History of Traffic Laws in Conclusion

Thanks to the traffic and driving laws that have been implemented since 1901, the road is now safer than ever. Since Karl Benz brought us the motor vehicle in 1886, the roads have changed dramatically. 

The DOT now keeps laws and rules up to date and will continue to do so in the future. The history of driving laws is a long one, but it is an important one in preserving the lives of thousands of people. 

Check out part two of driving law history.

Author Bio: Ethan Lichtenberg is a writer for He enjoys Edgar Allan Poe and sneaking off to the beach every chance he gets.

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