The distracted driving panic -- of 1930

In an era of furious texters and backseat movie screenings for rowdy kids, the car radio seems like the least of our driving distractions.

But back before the transistor and the Great Depression, the newfangled radio was cast by one Massachusetts bureaucrat as a roadway menace.

He worried that the noise itself was a distraction, that changing stations meant removing a driver's eyes from the road, that soft music could lull a motorist to sleep. It could even, he said, distract the driver in another car if the windows were open.

If the arguments sound familiar even today, then perhaps George A. Parker's proposal to ban the car radio altogether isn't surprising.

First, talking pictures. Now, this

Parker became Massachusetts registrar of motor vehicles in 1928. One of his first actions was to back legislation requiring a motorist's neighbors to endorse his moral fitness to drive. Rebuffed, Parker took on another imminent threat: radio.

The first custom-fitted automobile radios were reaching stores in 1930, the tipping point for a technology that had been emerging for years.

And maybe Parker had a point. The first car radios came wrapped in giant, sharp-cornered tin boxes, unaffixed to the car itself, and accompanied by unwieldy antennas. (This 1922 Popular Mechanics reprint shows one consuming the entire roof of a touring sedan.) Tuning was accomplished by means of giant knobs; the first push-button radios didn't appear for another decade. When wired into the car's generator, the radios were prone to spark electrical fires.

Yet, it was the driver's attention that most worried Parker.

Parker lobbied hard for a ban on car radios, mostly with state senators and a skeptical public. Parker believed that once he had the Massachusetts locals in tow, the rest of the country would soon follow. Other states, he told the Christian Science Monitor in 1930, were "hanging on the fence," waiting for a state bold enough to make the first move.

The showdown

Parker's move -- and a similar effort in St. Louis -- prompted the powerful industry to act. The Radio Manufacturers Association (now the Telecommunications Industry Association) jumped in, pointing out that $5 million had been spent on research and development. Its findings? Radios were, indeed, safe.

Supporters rallied at a public hearing in the Massachusetts capital, Springfield. Clarence E. Colby, an association lobbyist, told the audience that the radio was not nearly as distracting as a backseat driver or an argumentative passenger, according to the Boston Globe.

Why, Colby said insurance companies had even agreed to insure radio-equipped cars at the same rates as other cars.

State Rep. Slater Washburn of Worcester told the audience at a public hearing that he did not believe the question of radios to be serious or pressing. Washburn's own car was equipped with a radio, he said, but his chauffeur was not distracted by it.

"We have been going too fast with regulations not based on facts or statistics," James T. Sullivan of the Massachusetts Automobile Operators' Association told the Globe.

At end of the hearing, a show of hands was called. The result: Five in favor of the ban -- and 100 against.

Distracted Driving: The Sequel

Parker had hoped the public -- especially parents fearing radio-mad drivers would turn walks to school or the park into disaster zones -- would be eager to rally with him.

Instead, they chose their radios, even as many maintained some small suspicion that Parker might have been right. According to the New York Times, a 1934 questionnaire from the Auto Club of New York found 56 percent considered the car radio to be a dangerous distraction. And some still consider it a risk today.

While Parker made a few more efforts before turning his attention to drunken drivers, some kind of radio has been a standard feature in almost every car built in the 80 years since.

Now U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has launched a very public campaign to get every state to ban texting and cellphone use while driving. He also wants automakers to make dashboard consoles and in-car electronics simpler and less distracting.

But while Parker's campaign died in a matter of months, LaHood's has been much more successful. Today, 39 states ban texting, and 10 ban both texting and hand-held cellphone use, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has gone even further, seeking a complete ban on all in-car phone use -- even hands-free.

Despite the widespread use of texting bans, half of high school seniors surveyed recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they had texted while driving in the past 30 days.

The cellphone conundrum

LaHood and foes of distracted driving have at least one thing Parker lacked: Data -- reams and reams of data.

  • Nationwide figures compiled by the NTSB and U.S. Department of Transportation show that 3,092 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2010. Another 416,000 were injured.
  • About 11percent of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported to be distracted at the time of the accident, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
  • A 2009 study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found texting creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted. The report also notes that sending or receiving a text takes a driver's eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, "the equivalent -- at 55 mph -- of driving the length of an entire football field blind."

Yet some are no more convinced of the merits of a ban than radio users were in 1930.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), for one, says its studies suggest that bans may not be the best way to solve the problem. "Neither texting bans nor bans on hand-held phone use have reduced crash risk," says Adrian Lund, president of both the IIHS and the affiliated Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), in a report from late 2010.

Lund adds that texting bans might even increase the risk from drivers who hide their phones and try to text anyway.

For its part, the insurance industry covers drivers who text and drivers who don't. Few states have made cellphone tickets a moving violation that reaches your motor vehicle record - and seeing the violation is the only way your insurance company would know your dialing habits and raise your rates in response.

The original article can be found at distracted driving panic of 1930