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.