Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

Illustration of a radio being installed in a car in the June 1933 issue of Radio-Craft magazine [Source: Novak Archive]

Distracted Drivers Are Nothing New

• February 21, 2013 • 4:00 AM

Forget cellphones. The real danger from distracted driving is the car radio—according to observers in the days before Sirius, in-car DVD players, and even web browsers.

Illustration of a radio being installed in a car in the June 1933 issue of Radio-Craft magazine [Source: Novak Archive]

Illustration of a radio being installed in a car in the June 1933 issue of Radio-Craft magazine (Source: Novak Archive)

By some government estimates, 25 percent of motor vehicle accidents in the United States are a result of the driver being distracted. In response, state legislatures all across the country have passed laws to combat what many see as the main culprit—the now ubiquitous cellphone. With traffic fatalities on the rise, as the National Safety Council has just reported, driver distractions are back in the limelight.

Currently 10 states have laws banning all drivers from using handheld cellphones and 39 states ban texting while driving.

But the outcry over distracted driving is far from new. As radios were first being widely installed in automobiles during the early 1930s there were fierce fights over whether they should be allowed.

The June 1935 issue of Radio-Craft magazine explained the battle being waged between state legislators and radio manufacturers: “Ever since auto-radio installations became popular, a controversy has been going on—between legislative authorities and insurance companies on one hand, and radio manufacturers and car radio owners on the other—as to whether auto radio presented an accident hazard or not.”

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.”

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 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.

The radio industry continued to insist that there was no evidence that radio contributed to accidents. 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.”

The battle continued for some years, but it wasn’t until the late 1930s that researchers really tried to study the effect car radios were having on accident rates. The Princeton Radio Research Project was started in 1937 and aimed to look at the effect of mass media (such as radio) on society. Edward A. Suchman took on the question of radio’s influence on car crashes in a paper for the project, which appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology; his small study found no link between car radios and traffic accidents.

The problem with anti-cellphone laws is often one of enforcement. Who hasn’t bent the rules when we felt we could get away with a quick text behind the wheel? The takeaway from Suchman’s 1939 study was similar; different laws were passed all around the country to try to restrict radios in cars, but they were rarely, if ever, enforced.

Illustration from the June 1935 issue of Radio-Craft magazine [Source: Novak Archive]

Illustration from the June 1935 issue of Radio-Craft magazine (Source: Novak Archive)

As we move into the future, the number (and increasing size) of screens in cars will likely see new battles over distracted driving.

Tesla’s new Model S electric car also has its own screen, which some people have already objected to. After test driving the Model S, The Verge‘s Chris Ziegler was stunned that the web browser wouldn’t automatically disable when the car was in motion. Ziegler writes:

I was actually surprised that existing US or European regulations don’t prevent something like a giant touchscreen with a full web browser in a dashboard from being sold in the first place, but I think the Model S is a case where private industry has simply run circles around the molasses-esque bureaucracy of our government: in three, five, or ten years, I would be shocked if this kind of hardware and software configuration was legal. I don’t want a web browser in my car, and more importantly, I don’t want the drivers around me to have one.

By the end of the 1930s, about 30 percent of cars on American roads had radios. We’re still quite a ways from having that kind of large touchscreen penetration on today’s roads, but as Ziegler notes, it’s certainly the fight of tomorrow.

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for and

More From Matt Novak

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?

October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.

October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.

October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.

October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.

October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.

October 28 • 6:15 AM

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

October 28 • 6:00 AM

Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.

October 28 • 4:00 AM

The Study of Science Leads to Leftward Leanings

Researchers report the scientific ethos tends to produce a mindset that favors liberal political positions.

October 28 • 2:00 AM

Who Funded That? The Names and Numbers Behind the Research in Our Latest Issue

This list includes studies cited in our pages that received funding from a source other than the researchers’ home institutions. Only principal or corresponding authors are listed.

Follow us

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.