The first mention of a driver’s license for Idahoans that I could find was in an Idaho Statesman editorial on July 8, 1911. The paper was proposing a city driver’s license ordinance after the death of a young girl on the streets. She was killed by a streetcar. The Statesman called for licensing streetcar operators and operators of automobiles, as well.
Boise was behind at least one other Idaho city when it came to licensing. Those driving automobiles in Twin Falls in 1912 were reminded in the Twin Falls Times that they must take out a license to drive. It would cost them $1.
In 1917 the City of Boise passed an ordinance requiring livery drivers to purchase a license. The city council revoked at least a couple of licenses that year, one for drunk driving.
1924 was the first year a bill to require drivers to be licensed came up in the Idaho Legislature. One Statesman headline touted the “Examination of Drivers to Eliminate all Evils.” Requiring drivers to obtain a license was seen as a safety measure, not because they had to take a test, but because the state would then have the ability to take away a license from a driver who proved to be reckless. The bill went nowhere.
In 1927, the idea was back in the Idaho Legislature. National organizations were pushing for universal automobile legislation state by state. Idaho legislators then were about as ready to accept anything that smelled like federal government meddling as they are now. Nada on the driver’s license bill.
By 1928 there were 12 states requiring driver’s licenses. Only five of them required a test to obtain a license. That year the Idaho Statesman ran an article from a national motor club pointing out that “in all too many states, any boy or girl, any deaf person, any insane person at large is allowed to drive.”
The original bill requiring a driver’s license in Idaho, as proposed in 1935, prohibited those who were deaf from driving. The Idaho Association for the Deaf pointed out that many of its members had been driving safely for years. That prohibition was removed.
Meanwhile, the Idaho Statesman had switched sides in the intervening decades. The paper published at least three editorials opposing the bill on the grounds that it was just another way for the state government to take 50 cents or a dollar out of taxpayers’ pockets. “The administration of the act would only mean the establishment of one more bureau to add to the countless others in the state house, more inspectors, more clerks, more examiners to support from the general fund. As a matter of fact, one cannot be blamed for suspecting that this is the reason why many of the politicians like the proposed law.”
Some of those politicians felt the same way. On February 16, 1935, the Statesman reported on debate on S.B. 1, the driver’s license bill. “Senator Clark, Bonneville, tore into the bill with a whirlwind attack in which he said the measure was just one more of the encroachments of bureaucracy on the rights of the common people, just taking a little nick out of the family purse here and there.”
Senator Wilson, of Gem County called the bill “nothing but a tax and a few white collar jobs.” He added, “Pretty soon they’ll be taxing baldheaded men, or foolish men, and then won’t I feel sick?”
The bill’s sponsor, Senator Yost from Ada County accused his fellow lawmakers “of shedding crocodile tears for the fate of the poor fellows who would pay 50 cents each but ignoring the fate of the 124 who filled fresh graves in Idaho in 1934 because of automobile deaths.” There were 200,000 drivers that year in the state.
Senator James Just of Bingham County was not quoted. I bring him up only because my grandfather was a notoriously awful driver, yet he voted for the measure. It passed the senate by one vote. The Statesman ran two more editorials after the fact grousing about the bill.
So, finally, Idaho had a driver’s license law. It was just a matter of filling out a form and finding a couple of quarters to pay for the license. The state didn’t begin requiring a test for drivers until 1951.
As long as it took Idaho to get licensing into law, it was by no means the last state to do so. South Dakota didn’t require its drivers to hold a license until 1954.