There are few things that promise adventure as much as the idea of the open road. From saddling up old Clarence the Clydesdale at the turn of the last century to revving the engine on a new car, people throughout history have thrilled to the idea of hitting the highway and making for Mexico (or maybe just Mildura).
But while you may never have needed a lawmaker to give you the green light to tell Clarence to giddy-the- heck-up, the advent of the car has meant that getting behind the wheel had a lot more riding on it. Being in charge of four inflated circles has meant a whole lot of officialdom has intervened before you’re allowed to press the pedal to the metal. So today we take a trip back to the dirt roads and lawless highways of the past for a look-see at licenses over time, before we zoom into the future of driving itself!
When cars first started rolling out of the factories, there were no laws around their use; no speed limits applied, nor minimum age required to drive one. A person merely had to have the funds to buy one and the right to use it was theirs.
Of course cars were initially slow to take to the roads as not everyone could afford this new fangled novelty, so the racket they made was usually enough to warn those ahead what was coming. But as traffic increased steadily so too did the fatalities. Cars were soon a menace to society and the road toll reflected a worrying trend for squashing pedestrians. Nevertheless most countries were slow to introduce licensing of any kind.
It was France that led the way in making sure only someone of sound mind and passable ability was permitted to steer a car. In 1893 a law came into effect that limited car speeds to 20kmph on country roads and 12kmph in urban areas. France formalised license testing and was quick to follow up with fines for infractions. Other countries were sluggish to follow, with America introducing laws and licences in an ad hoc fashion, notably requiring the New York chauffeurs of 1910 to hold a valid license but no one else. Eventually the state came to require licenses of all drivers and even specify the kind of trips they were permitted to take. Britain lagged well behind the other large developed countries, only finding the time to introduce licensing in 1935. But they were careful not to completely remove the threat of losing life or limb by allowing hand signalling out the windows!
Of course the sheer volume of cars on the roads necessitated licensing and law making as time wore on. And licenses themselves also underwent significant change to reflect the new seriousness with which driving was viewed. The earliest paper licenses bore but a few scant details before they came to be replaced by cardboard slips bearing photo identification and signatures and, in some instances, even criminal convictions. Still later holograms, colour photos and metadata strips became the norm.
But after all this it may be that we will return to our licenceless state once more. With driverless cars in the ascendancy, the rite of passage that once marked entry to adulthood in the form of a set of keys and a clapped out sedan, may be a thing of the past soon, too.