Driving Through the Ages – Motorcar History

In the early days of motoring, there were few rules or regulations. In 1893, France was the first country in the world to introduce a driving test, along with the first vehicle registration plates and parking restrictions.

The first car and driver licences were introduced in Britain in 1903, but testing was unknown here for almost another 30 years.

Miss Vera Hedges Butler was the first British woman to pass a driving test: as it was 1900, and drivers were not yet being tested in Britain, the intrepid Miss Hedges Butler decided to go all the way to Paris to take the French test. By the early 1930s, motoring had become more popular and more affordable. However, rules and regulations were scant and drivers received only basic instructions before being allowed on the roads. Consequently, accidents and fatalities began to reach worrying proportions.

Early efforts to improve road safety in Britain included:

  • the London ‘Safety First’ Council, formed in 1916, which introduced a range of road safety initiatives (in 1941 the Council became RoSPA)
  • a test for disabled drivers, introduced in 1930
  • the first vehicle examiners, appointed in 1930
  • the minimum driving age of 17 and an urban speed limit of 30 mph, both set in 1930
  • the first edition of the Highway Code, published in 1931
  • PSV testing, brought in at Traffic Commissioners’ discretion in 1931 (prompted by the bus races of the 1920s)
  • cats’ eyes, invented by Percy Shaw in 1934.
  • But these measures were unable to halt the mounting death toll. In 1934, 7,343 people were killed on Britain’s roads, despite there being just 2.4 million vehicles on the road, 1.5 million of which were cars, compared to over 30 million in 2003.

Public concern was growing and drastic action was needed. Transport Minister Oliver Stanley pushed for the introduction of various road safety measures, including formal testing for drivers.

In 1935, under his successor Leslie Hore-Belisha, the driving test was introduced: within a year the death toll had fallen by nearly a thousand. When announcing the introduction of the driving test, Leslie Hore-Belisha said, ‘Driving is an art in which those who are engaged should, in the interest of their own and of the public’s safety, take the greatest pains to make themselves proficient.’

Decades later this still holds true and is summed up in the DSA’s maxim, ‘Safe driving for life.’

In the early years of licences, all motor vehicles had to be registered, display registration marks and be licensed annually at a cost of 20 shillings (GBP1). The fee for the first driving licence, which was obtained over the counter at Post Offices, was five shillings (25p). Failure to sign your driving licence with your ‘ordinary signature’ could lead to a fine of up to GBP5. In 1921 there were only 1 million drivers in Britain. By 1939 this figure had risen to 3 million. But it was only during the 1960s, when cars became more affordable, that motoring really took off. In 1973 the number of drivers had risen to about 20 million and a centralised computer-based licensing system was brought in to cope with the huge increase in demand for both driver and vehicle licences.

Year cars/vehicles on road:
1934 – 2,400,000
1959 – 5,000,000
1970 – 15,000,000
1983 – 20,000,000
2003 – 30,000,000+