When the first automobiles were introduced at the start of the 20th century, anyone could drive them without restriction. Just as the earlier carriage or wagon driver needed no license, the first automobile drivers were free to take to the road without the government's permission. Part of this freedom was due to the privacy of early automobile construction--many men and women simply built and attached their own engines to their wagons.
The first driver's licenses were issued in 1903 by Massachusetts and Missouri. These required no examinations of driving skills and were little more than identification cards. As late as the 1930s and 1940s, many states simply instructed the potential driver to pay a small fee of 25 or 50 cents in exchange for a driver's license, which were often sent by mail.
Safety concerns began prompting states to issue driving examinations before licensing drivers. Part of this was due to the increase in the number of cars and drivers. By the end of the 1920s, 75 percent of households owned a car. In 1907, the New York Times published an article entitled "Better Auto Laws Are Now Needed," which reported the concerns of leading