The First Driver’s Licenses

April 10, 2013 in Trivia

Karl Benz's Driver's License

The first “permission to carry out trial runs of a patent motorwagen”, received by Karl Benz on Aug. 1, 1888.

New Jersey often is credited for initiating the use of driver’s licenses in the United States in 1913. According to travel writer Ashley Mackenzie however, Massachusetts and Missouri issued the first driver’s licenses in the United States in 1903. There were no driving examinations for the licenses. They served basically as identification cards.

As early as 1899 however, even before licenses came into practice, Chicago required automobile drivers to pass an examination to operate a vehicle. A New York City ordinance mandated that only a licensed engineer could drive a steam-powered car. In 1908, Rhode Island became the first state to test driving skills as a prerequisite to the issuance of a license.

It was the New Jersey law though, applying to all drivers in the state, which inspired the press to weigh in on the universal need for state licensing. In 1913, a New York Times report called for other states to follow New Jersey’s lead in the interest of public safety and accident reduction. South Dakota was the last state to require drivers to pass a driving exam to get a license in 1959.

In 1888, Germany’s Karl Benz, inventor of the modern automobile, actually was issued the very first license to operate a motor vehicle. Complaints by Mannheim citizens about the noise and smell of his “motorwagen” moved him to request and secure written permission by local authorities to drive his vehicle on public roads.