Living

Think about it: Drivers licenses drive us

A colorized postcard of cars parked in front of the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport is symbolic because it was in 1918, within years of this image, that the state mandated registration for vehicles in every county. Drivers didn’t need licenses for 20 more years.
A colorized postcard of cars parked in front of the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport is symbolic because it was in 1918, within years of this image, that the state mandated registration for vehicles in every county. Drivers didn’t need licenses for 20 more years. Southern Possum Tales Archives

Today, rare is the wallet that does not contain a drivers license or an ID from Mississippi Department of Motor Vehicles, or whatever state we live in. That’s not always been the case.

Today we Americans do little without a drivers license identification. That can be true at some voting polls, at a store writing a check (yes, some folks still do that), proving age at a drinking establishment, entering a military base as a guest, checking into a hotel, even getting a passport to travel overseas.

Woe be the soul caught behind the wheel without one. The li’l ole drivers license has importance far beyond its size, despite those barely recognizable DL “mug shots” we must claim as us.

Obviously, the automobile brought with it a new mode of identification as well as transportation.

Mississippi’s first automobile crashed onto the Coast scene in June 1900, but nearly four decades passed before the state created a law to require a license to drive.

Car registration

Car registration was mandated long before most states required drivers licenses. With tens of thousands of autos clogging a sparse number of paved streets, all states by 1918 required all motorized vehicles to be registered. That registration led to license plates for displaying the assigned numbers.

But in 1918 only seven of those states also required drivers licenses despite public concern over incompetent driving. Only three of those seven required driving exams before they issued the licenses. Basically, you could obtain a license without proving you could safely drive.

Mississippi didn’t jump on the DL bandwagon until 1938, with six other states even slower. The last to mandate a drivers license was South Dakota in 1954, and that “Under God, the People Rule!” state didn’t require a driving exam for another five years.

Not happy about it

Mississippians weren’t happy when this state passed its first drivers license law, followed eight years later by a required driving test. Early drivers simply ignored the law, especially on the Coast, where many were slow to accept that state and local governments could claim the power to authorize or deny anyone driving a motorized vehicle.

This newspaper admonished Coast residents for not following the new rules.

“Some 30 additional patrolmen are being put on throughout the state to check up on the licenses, but it appears that the Coast is the state’s ‘sore spot’ as licenses have not been secured in this section as they have elsewhere in the state,” reported a July 27, 1940, article headlined “Must Secure Drivers’ Licenses or be Fined.”

“Word was received today that after August 1 the state highway patrol would have men on the Coast checking up on licenses and that $5 fines would be assessed those not having licenses.”

Ignored

The state’s August 1 deadline for drivers license applications was being ignored, with only 1,800 applications for the estimated 7,000 licenses that should be issued in just Biloxi.

That 1940 fine equates to $90 today. Interestingly, driving without a license today in Mississippi would bring a fine between $200 to $500. The li’l ole DL joins combustion engines, electricity, Cyber Space and other things on the list that now drive our lives.

Changing landscape

On the Coast, the automobile brought great change of landscape.

Eminent domain was used to create a two, then four lane U.S. Highway 90. Vintage oaks were felled for buildings to lodge and entertain all the new, mobile visitors and residents. A road-protecting seawall forever changed the natural beach that greeted 1699 French explorers.

From time to time, we’ll explore some of these auto-driven changes, just as influential today as yesterday when the engine from the Coast’s first crashed car was used to motorized a Biloxi sailing schooner.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

  Comments