The War on Car Radios

Distracted driving before mobile phones.


Before today's battles over cell phones and distracted driving, there were battles over car radios and distracted driving. Matt Novak (of Paleofuture fame) describes the debate in the Pacific Standard:

When car radio thieves were heroes.

In the early 1930s legislators in states like Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Ohio all proposed steep fines for drivers, while others imagined that making the installation [of a car rado] a crime—since few automobiles came with them pre-installed—would help keep drivers safe. In May of 1935 state legislators in Connecticut introduced a bill that would have made the installation of radio into a car subject to a $50 fine, or about $825 adjusted for inflation. It didn't pass.

Naturally, industry pushed back:

In 1930 the former president of the Radio Manufacturers Association, C.C. Colby, claimed that talking to people in the back seat of the car posed a greater risk to public safety than the new car radio: "Radio is not distracting because it demands no attention from the driver and requires no answer, as does conversation between the driver and passengers. Motor car radio is tuned by ear without the driver taking his eyes off the road. It is less disconcerting than the rear view mirror."…

Instead, they said, radio might actually reduce the number of collisions. Bond Geddes, executive vice president of the Radio Manufacturers Association, said in 1935: "Since that time [when auto radio first became popular] there has not been a single case according to any information in our possession where an automobile radio has been the cause of any major accident. Against this is the almost unanimous opinion of operators of automobiles equipped with radio that they tend to reduce speed and, therefore, are not a source of danger but actually become a safety factor."

Read the whole thing here. Then prepare to relive the argument yet again when drivers start wearing Google Glass.