Here’s the Really Strange History Behind Modern Traffic Laws

Imagine, if you will, a time when nearly everyone walked, rode on horseback or got where they were going by sitting in a horse-drawn carriage. Now imagine a newfangled motorized car whizzes by. It’s not hard to picture what would happen if carriage and car met, is it?

As the numbers of cars grew more plentiful in the early 1900s, it became clear laws were necessary to keep accidents to a minimum and safeguard the public.


“Traffic laws these days are in place to make sure bad drivers are censured and reduce the numbers of traffic injuries and deaths, but that wasn’t always the case.” — Alex Perdikis

Here’s the often odd and sometimes frightening story of how traffic laws came to be.

“Rules of the Road” is How Old?

William P. Eno is probably not on your list of admirable people of the past. But, he should be. Known as the father of traffic safety, Eno wrote the very first “Rules of the Road” back in 1903. Eno was instrumental in introducing many of the same laws still in use, including speed limits, pedestrian crosswalks, left passing lanes and stop signs.

As far-thinking as Eno was, he believed intersections would always require a police officer to guide traffic. And stop lights? Heaven forbid, they’ll never become mainstream. He also refrained from driving himself. Instead, he employed a chauffeur.

License Your Car, License to Drive

As soon as local government officials realized the numbers of horse-drawn wagon and car collisions was a problem, they began to pass laws to limit accidents. One of the first paths down the road to safety was vehicle registration. New York became the first state to require registration in 1901 and other states quickly followed.

Before the 1930s, learning to drive was somewhat of a mixed bag. Some people learned from the car dealer who sold them the car, others learned from family and friends and still others learned from local organizations such as the YMCA. Incredibly, states had no particular role in licensing drivers in those days. That began to change by the mid-1930s. By 1935 the majority of states issued licenses.

Your Driving Behavior

A driver’s behavior became a huge issue in the 1910s. Speeding, recklessness and drunken driving caused many a collision and not just a few fatalities. Pedestrians were particularly at risk.

To address the behavior problem, the National Safety Council was founded in 1913. The organization began compiling accident statistics. Increasing public awareness to promote responsible driving became its primary mission.

Local municipalities also took charge, enacting more stringent laws and increasing the numbers of traffic signals. Severe punishments for major violations, such as speeding and drunken driving, including heavy fines and prison sentences began.

Traffic Laws in the Motor City

Detroit’s relationships with cars varied greatly from that of New York City where most drivers were uniformed chauffeurs hired by wealthy employers. In Detroit, everyone was driving. In 1917 alone, there were 65,000 cars on Detroit and the surrounding area roads. Along with those high numbers came thousands of accidents. Of the 168 fatalities that year, the majority were of pedestrians.

It wasn’t uncommon for children as young as 11 to be the designated family driver. Light trucks making deliveries were often driven by 14-year-olds who were constantly badgered by the boss to drive faster and faster.

Out of the carnage, however, came a number of safety innovations. The first stop sign was used in Detroit in 1915 and Detroit became one of the first cities to use one-way streets to control traffic flow. Detroit was also the place where the first traffic lights were developed and used, probably much to the dismay of Mr. William P. Eno.

Alex Perdikis, Koons of Silver Spring general manager and owner, lives in Chevy Chase with his wife and daughters.