Menus Subscribe Search
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 BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

More From Matt Novak

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

Recent Posts


August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


Follow us


When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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