Nanny State

How One Bureaucrat Almost Succeeded in Banning Car Radios

A brief history of Ray LaHood's forgotten predecessor


Science fiction writer Douglas Adams once broke down the human reaction to technology thusly: Anything that's existed for as long as you have is normal; anything invented while you're between the ages of 15 and 35 is something you can profit from; anything invented after you've turned 35 is "against the natural order of things."

Historically, the men and women who regulate America's roadways almost always fall into the third category. Take Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose office released a report last month encouraging automakers to dumb down their dashboard consoles and in-car electronics. The recommendations are almost comical in their concern and specificity, going so far as to suggest the maximum amount of time a driver should spend looking for and then pressing a button (two seconds), the maximum number of intermittent two-second glances required to complete an entire task (6, for 12 seconds total), and the maximum amount of digital text a driver can see while the car is moving (no more than 30 characters, "not counting puncuation marks").

LaHood's latest attempt to revise the rules of the road in response to hysterical fears about in-car technology is nothing new. The proliferation of the cellular phone in the late 1990s was met with a similar response, as was the advent of the car phone in the preceding decade. In fact, the state's attempt to engineer the ideal driving experience—during which the automobilist's hands are always at 10 and 2, his eyes glued to the road, his ears pricked only for the sounds of emergency vehicles and the laughter of children bouncing their balls too close to the street—dates back to 1930s Massachusetts, and a man named George A. Parker.

Parker was appointed Massachusetts Registrar of Motor Vehicles in 1928. That same year, he earned the ire of Massachusetts fishermen by printing new license plates with the likeness of a cod that "resembled an oversized guppy," and looked as if it was swimming away from the state's likeness. A bad season ensued, and the fishermen called for Parker's head. So Massachusetts quickly designed and released a new plate that featured a more cod-like creature swimming toward the state outline.

By 1929, Parker had graduated to social engineering. That year he testified before a Massachusetts state senate committee that "when a person has driven an automobile for 10 years or more, he begins to lose his ability to operate the car." Parker had always believed this, and told the committee that he had recently come across "research" that confirmed his hunch.

Two state senators were more than happy to empower Parker, according to an Associated Press report from the hearing. Senator James C. Moran offered legislation that would enlist "neighbors of an applicant" to "sign affidavits as to the driver's moral fitness"; Senator William E. Weeks sponsored a bill that would "require a physician's certificate for an applicant for a driver's license."

The Automobile Legal Association, an industry lobbying group, objected to both pieces of legislation, on the grounds that "speeding and indifferent driving"—two of the biggest causes of accidents—"could not be eliminated by tests."

Predictably, the legislation failed, so Parker turned his attention to an even more dangerous culprit: "distracting" car radios. 

If Massachusetts could pass a car radio ban, Parker claimed, the rest of the country would likely follow. "Several states were only 'hanging on the fence,'" he told the Christian Science Monitor, "waiting action by someone else before taking it themselves." (St. Louis was also hard at work on passing one.)

There was only one problem. Massachusetts residents, like most Americans, were enamored with the radio. They liked them in their homes, and they wanted them in their cars. They wanted them despite the fact that they were expensive ($130, compared to the $600 they paid for a new car), and prone to starting fires if they were not properly wired. (Motorola founder Paul Galvin, for example, installed a radio in his banker's car in 1930 in order to convince the man that car radios were a safe bet; several blocks from the bank, the loan officer's car burst into flames. According to the June 1972 issue of Special-Interest Autos, Galvin got the loan anyway, and Motorola's radio became the first mass-market car radio in the world.)

Massachusetts residents wanted their car radios so badly that several hundred of them besieged Parker's office in late February 1930 to protest his policy.

"Pictures were drawn before the Department of Public Works depicting the automobilist on a long trip soothed by the swing of a serenade pouring from the mouth of a loud speaker, while the 'back seat' driver clamored vainly for an audience," reported the Christian Science Monitor.  Also featured: "The habitual speedster, crawling at a snail's pace along the highway, lest he lose the last minutes of 'Amons 'n' Andy'" and the driver "who usually falls asleep at the wheel, pictured wide awake keeping time to the strains of the 'Beautiful Blue Danube.'"

Clarence E. Colby, a lobbyist for the Radio Manufacturers Association, told the crowd that the companies he represented had invested nearly $5 million in car radio R&D and that insurance companies offered coverage to drivers with car radios. After the speeches, an informal poll of more than 100 people who had gathered at the Public Works office that day found only five who backed Parker's prohibition proposal.

Colby rebutted Parker again in May of 1930, this time in the pages of The Washington Post. His list of defenses holds true today: Radio is not in "the class with the back seat driver with his or her irritating remarks, nor can the radio set carry on an argument with the driver." The radio knob is as easy to use as "a choke handle." Driving without even the slightest distraction can be monotonous and sleep-inducing. Insurance companies—"always quick to sense a risk or liability"—"see nothing unsafe in motor car radio."

Parker gave up his crusade against car radios that year in favor of chasing drunk drivers. Thanks to the Volstead Act, he had much more success.

Ray LaHood could learn a thing or two from Parker's failures. For starters, American drivers are no more willing to part with their in-car technology in 2012 than they were in 1930. Banning cell phones has only moved their usage from steering wheel level—where one could divide his attention between the phone screen and the road—to the driver's lap, increasing the distance one's eyes must travel from text message to tarmac. The other lesson, of course, is that technology is here to help. GPS simplifies the driving experience by eliminating the need for solo automobilists to reference paper maps while driving. And those textureless (and therefore "distracting") touch-screen buttons that were so pervasive in 2011 baseline models? Come next year, or maybe the year after, their functions will likely be handled by voice activation technology (or maybe, the cars will drive themselves).

Until then, American drivers will continue to adjust to in-car features, just as they learned, almost a century ago, to hunt down Amos 'n' Andy on the AM dial while chugging along in their Studebaker Phaeton's and Ford Model As—without crashing. 

Mike Riggs is an associate editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter. 

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  1. A government official in Massachusetts who hated freedom and tried to ensure that people didn’t have a good time?

    In Massachusetts?

    That’s unpossible!

    1. Why are you such a Masshole, tarran?

    2. That’s unpossible!

      Not if it was For The Children!!

      1. Here’s the situation. My child is gravely ill. Only an operation can….

        Voluntary Slave Contracts
        by Walter Block
        [Austrian “free market” economist with the Mises Institute]

        1. Don’t know what point you are trying to make, but have you ever heard of the military. Pretty much voluntary slavery contracts.

          1. military?

          2. My point is:

            It’s hypocritical to point out when “for the children” is used by the other group. Seems everybody does it; including Market Fundamentalists.

            1. Um no. Walter is saying it is ok for ME to make a slave of MYSELF for MY children. It is not ok to enslave others for my kids. There is a difference.

    3. That is forsight – Mass predicted the advent of Rush Limbaugh on AM car radios 60 years ago and tried to stop it!!! OMG – liberals have time machines!

  2. Why aren’t we all forced to solely use public transportation? LaHood has to know that’s the only solution.

    1. Inside domed cities!

    2. I find the drama and gunshots distracting.

      1. The Tebow/Swift/Bieber 3-Way

        That’s about the most horrifying image I can think of that does not involve debbie wasserman-schultz and a banana.

        1. Why? It would just be Taylor Swift masturbating.

        2. *runs screaming from room*

      2. I would prefer a sarcasmic/Swift/Vonn 3-way, but that’s just me.

        1. Two virgins short. Or maybe just one.

      3. I don’t find the gunshots distracting.

        Unless I miss.

    3. Bus drivers can still get distracted. Only with the advent of robodrivers will you see a serious push for all public transport.

      1. That’s why trains and light rails are so important. We must take collective public action now to end the scourge of people being able to go where they want, when they want.

        1. And get as many people into tin cans going from one point to another.

          Because idiot terrorists like public transportation… because as many people as possible have been crammed into tin cans going from one point to another.

          Then we can increase the Homeland Security State.

          The problem with you libertards is you’ve got no vision. This isn’t about radios, it’s about government jobs saved or created.

    4. It’s coming, Fist. Obama may need two or more terms to pull it off, but one day only politicians will have private transportation.

      1. Obama may need two or more terms

        “Sorry, but all the other candidates in this election were white, and it would be overwhelmingly racist to make President Obama give his job up to the descendent of a slave owner. You fucking racist peasants.”

  3. OT: Is there going to be any comment from Reason about the Koch suing the Cato Institute for control?

    1. the Koch brothers*

    2. I’m betting no.


        I lost that bet.

    3. They would comment, but they’re just too busy running up the global market price of oil right now.

  4. My Grandmother said her family’s first car didn’t have a heater… and damn it think of all the accidents that have happened since heaters have been installed in cars.

    1. My first car was a Corvair (Yes, Naderites, I know) and it was available with an optional gasoline heater, though I had the regular hot air heater.

      1. My first car was a Corvair (Yes, Naderites, I know)

        I call bullshit. You’re not dead from a rollover accident.

  5. So, paternalistic assclowns were just as annoying in 1930 as they are today. I wonder if Roy LaHood goes home everynight and fondles himself over a picure of George Parker?

    1. Why are you for it?

      1. Why are you contributing?

        1. I don’t think the word “contributing” means what you think it does.

    2. The story of human history is one of paternalistic assclowns fucking with people for their own good.

      1. ^this

      2. The state controlled human labor, and material goods indirectly through that medium. Civilization rests heavily on specialization: specialists in crafts, specialists in religion, specialists in defense, even specialists in bureaucracy ? the elites themselves…If trade became the primary means of safeguarding against starvation, artisans may become important in order to produce goods to be traded. Once again, it is an elite activity ? trade ? which drives agriculture.

        Thesis #10: Emergent elites led the Agricultural Revolution.
        by Jason Godesky…..html#toc16

        Empirical Data pretty much blows the Market Fundamentalist’s bullshit view of trade.

        1. Fuck off Mary Stack slaver!

      3. “The story of human history is one of paternalistic assclowns fucking with people for their own good.”

        Somebody gets it. Yeeeeeep

  6. “How One Bureaucrat Almost Succeeded in Banning Car Radios”…….Oh, don’t worry….there’s still time.

    1. There’s an endless supply of bureaucrats.

      1. But what about the aggregated demand for bureaucrats? We need a stimulus program!

  7. Senator James C. Moran

    It takes a Moran to tow the lion.

  8. Ray LaHood is such a useless asshole. I mean, how does it feel to go home every day and realize your entire career is immoral and total bullshit?

    1. “……go home every day and realize….”

      See, there is where you err. Realize? People like Lahood and Parker simply dont. They honestly think that they are wiser than you are and are saving you from yourself. Dont believe it? Read that kingshit asshole Cass Sunstien, he will convince you that you really cant make the right decisions for yourself as well as he can.

      1. Maybe somebody could defile the fucker’s gravestone when he’s dead and note as such.

        “Your life was fucking pointless. You did immoral shit. Fuck you.”

        1. It would be my great pleasure to do so. Unfortunately, I would have to have a stamp. There are so many of those fuckers that I could never chisel it by hand on all of their graves in one lifetime.

          1. lasers. EOM.

  9. Medium is a drama adapted from the real person and events. Allison Dubois is a real psychic in the USA. Her personal experiences have repeatedly been gathered into publishing.

  10. Now thats what I am talking about dude. WOw.

  11. Here are some facts for those who talk and drive: []

    In 2008 almost 6,000 people died in crashes involving reports of distracted driving, and an estimated 20 percent of all crashes on U.S. roadways involved distracted driving.

    Drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves.

    The National Safety Council (NCS) estimates that nearly 28 percent of crashes ? about 1.6 million a year ? can be attributed to cell phone talking and texting while driving.

    A University of Utah study found that people are as impaired when they drive and talk on a cell phone as they are when they drive intoxicated at the legal blood-alcohol limit of .08 percent.

    Compared to nondistracted drivers, drivers who text are 23 times more likely to be involved in a car crash.

    1. I estimate that the National Safety Council (NCS) makes up about 88% of their statistics.

      If they were right about cell phones causing 1,600,000 accidents each year, how do they explain the fact that traffic fatalities have gone DOWN by over 10,000 per year since the mid-1980s (when cell phones first started showing up in cars)?

      1. Airbags, crush zones, high strength steel?

    2. As reported in the June issue of Epidemiology, American women were involved in 5.7 crashes per million miles driven. Men, on the other hand, clocked up just 5.1 crashes per million miles. Given the fact that men drive an estimated 74 per cent more miles per year than women, the figure is surprising indeed.

      The solution is to ban women from driving. Think of the lives that would be saved.

  12. And apparently, these advances have been very effective in preventing a _lot_ of Darwin Awards from being awarded, as evidenced by the level of discourse at so many sites like this one…

  13. “Banning cell phones has only moved their usage from steering wheel level?where one could divide his attention between the phone screen and the road?to the driver’s lap, increasing the distance one’s eyes must travel from text message to tarmac.”

    Banning may be an inappropriate reaction. Though I am amazed at the continued contention that cell phone use while driving is somehow insignficant to operating a vehicle safely. Sorry, but whenever I see a car behaving erratically, I find the majority of the time the driver is holding a cell phone to his ear. Furthermore the problem is simply the distraction, it is the length of the distraction and the reluctance to ignore the distraction when the situation calls for it.

  14. Here’s the thing about cell phones. . .

    I’m a Professional Driver, with approximately 1,000,000 accident-free miles under my ass – all driven while dealing with the “distractions” of stereo, company radio, C.B. radio, idiots in 4-wheelers with “airbags, crush zones, and high-strength steel” which they *know* will “save” them in case of an accident, and yes, cell phones. . .

    It isn’t cell phones which are the problem – it’s airbags, crumple zones, etc., which are the culprit. It’s the fact that drivers are being insulated more and more from their surroundings when they need to be *MORE* aware. The best analogy I ever read was, “If you remove the driver airbag and replace it with a Machete aimed at the driver, nobody would ever go over 5mph.”

    It’s all about what’s called “Perceived Risk.” All of these “safety features” actually make us *less* safe by lowering the perceived risk. . .

  15. One of the best stories I have, which shows this in detail, is years ago when I bought a used ’75 Toyota Corolla – many of my friends told me that they’d *never* buy a small car like that, because “my LTD/Bonneville/garbage barge will protect me in case of an accident.” My response? “While you’re needing that big car to “protect” you, my nimble little car avoids the accident entirely.”

    Perceived Risk. Everyone has a certain level which they need to keep them awake and on their toes – lower the Perceived Risk, and drivers will take more risks in order to raise the level of Perceived Risk to that which they need.

    Geez Louise, people – it isn’t rocket surgery.

    1. While you’re needing that big car to “protect” you, my nimble little car avoids the accident entirely.

      Perceived Risk Driving Skills.

  16. I am no fan of LaHood’s.

    But just because he’s nuts, that’s not to say that everything he espouses is nuts, too.

    Drivers of manual transmission cars who smoke, use their cell phones, and interact with iDrives and GPS touchscreens are, in some circumstances, going to find themselves, well, kinda busy, and even distracted. Engineering that would make those tasks easier would be a good thing, it seems to me. But let it come from the engineers, who listen to the marketing and sales people, not from bureaucrats.


    1. Dang 900-character limit.

      Back when I tried to learn to fly, I was impressed that the controls for standard functions had standard shapes. On any aircraft, e.g., the throttle (and only the throttle) had a ball-shaped knob (whence, “Ball to the wall”– full throttle). The pilot could find it without looking down. How wrong is that?

      When pushbuttons were introduced on car radios, there weren’t many others. They were easy to find without looking, and faster to use that turning a dial.

      I hope that engineers keep working on making the new technologies as easy and distraction-free as they can.


      1. Actually the phrase was even earlier than that, and probably why the throttle has a ball-shaped knob.

        Steam engines mostly had flywheel governors shaped like balls on an expanding hinge that extended the balls at higher speed. Thus “balls to the wall” meant the engine was at maximum.

    2. And BTW, the author is out of date:
      Re: “during which the automobilist’s hands are always at 10 and 2”: These days, drivers of airbag-equipped cars are advised to keep their hands somewhat lower on the wheel, because the explosive forces involved in bag deployment can break arms.

      Cell phones are probably worse than passengers for driver distraction. They both take a driver’s consciousness away from the road, but the party on the other end of the “line” can’t see and react to an impending danger; but a passenger can at least have a panicked look on her face that might cause the driver to look back out the window.


      1. Yep – right about the panicked look!

    3. I respectfully disagree about the manual transmission. And with your conclusion. When you need to be engaged to operate the vehicle you are going to be more . . . engaged. I think the ease with which one can get a car 100 miles down the road is part of the problem. I certainly would not advocate banning power steering, power brakes, automatic transmissions, climate control, nice cushy shocks, and other vehicle options; but I know when I am driving something more run down and primitive I pay better attention.

  17. ADDinSchool. net. Listed here are a few ideas on Dealing with Energetic Actions: 1 from the key points of kids together with attention cutbacks is the inclination to act impulsively (performing ahead of considering via the ramifications regarding behavior). Behaviorally, this manifests itself inside a lack of knowledge regarding cause and impact. Investigation also indicates that these college students may generally verbalize the guidelines in location with regard to habits but have got problem internalizing all of them and also translation all of them into thoughtful behavior. Troubles within delaying pleasure furthermore increase to the impulsivity. Some doctors believe that behavioral disinhibition (bad regulation and also inhibition of behavior), rather than their own capability to be able to pay focus, may be the main manifestation of focus deficits and is a lot more most likely to be able to discriminate these children through others.

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