by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Though the first automobiles took to California’s few decent roads in the late 1890s, there was not a state vehicle code until 1915, the year the Department of Motor Vehicles was formed. In fact, the establishment of the Automobile Club of Southern California in 1900 was partially because of the absence of state oversight of the newfangled horseless carriages.
Tonight’s post highlights an artifact from the museum’s holdings, specifically, the amended California Vehicle Act as of this date in 1919. The legislation was amended two years prior, as well. This pamphlet was published by the Auto Club’s legal department as a service to members, it being given free to them, though non-members could buy it for 25 cents.
In a brief preface, the Auto Club noted that “ignorance of the law excuses no one. You are presumed to know the law; if you do not know it, your ignorance is inexcusable.” Consequently, the club provided the act, including an index and summary, “in order that you, as a motorist, may know the law which most vitally concerns you.”
There are some very interesting provisions of the act compared with what is done now a century later. For example, registration fees were based on the vehicle’s horsepower at the rate of 40 cents, excepting motorcycles, which had a flat fee of $2; commercial vehicles based on weight under or over 4,000 pounds and in increments of 6,000 and 10,000 pounds; and “electric automobiles” which had a fee of five dollars. There were electric cars (and hybrids and natural gas ones, too) at the time, though they were not very advanced and improvements in drilling for oil at lower depths helped end the production of “alternative fuel” vehicles. There were other fees for manufacturers and dealers of cars as well. Fees also existed for operators and chauffeurs.
Exemptions were for “representatives of foreign powers” used for official business, federal and state vehicles and “such self-propelling vehicles as are used neither for the conveyance of persons for hire, pleasure, or business, not for the transportation of freight.”
With regard to license plates, motorcycles were assigned one and automobiles a pair, as is the case now, but renewals took place at the end of January for all vehicles rather than in the month of sale. Exempt vehicles had plates that distinguished them from those that were issued to fee payers. Also of note is the registration certificates were to be “in plain sight” in the driver’s compartment of an automobile, though it could be in a tool bag or other receptacle on a motorcycle.
Another interesting section of the act concerned the fact that written notice was to be given to the local police chief, marshal or county sheriff “before any person, firm or corporation shall wreck, dismantle or dis[as]semble any motor vehicle, or substantially alter the form thereof.” A transfer of an engine to another vehicle also required notification, in this instance to the DMV.
Section twelve mandated that “every motor vehicle shall be equipped with a bell, gong, horn, whistle or other device in good working order, capable of emitting an abrupt sound adequate in quality and volume to give warning” to pedestrians and drivers or riders of vehicles or animals, as well as streetcars and those embarking and disembarking from them.
The requirements for lights are also notable, with the provision that, if there was not enough light on highway boundaries to illuminate objects for 200 feet, or from a half-hour after sunset to a half-hour before sunrise, two lamps had to be on the front of vehicles and one rear lamp with a red light, so that the latter had to be seen at a distance of 500 feet. In addition the rear license plate had to be lighted so that it could be seen from at least 50 feet away. Conditions varied for bicycles, trucks and motorcycles, though each had to have lights, or in the case of bicycles a reflex mirror at the rear, at both the front and back.
Weight limits were 30,000 pounds for vehicles with four wheels or 40,000 pounds for those with six wheels. There were also prohibitions for vehicles above 600 or 800 pounds “upon any inch of width of tire” when the tires were “made of other material than metal” unless a permit was obtained.
Vehicles with movable track, mainly a flexible chain, were exempt and there was a provision to allow local governments to regulate weight limits. Overloading was an issue with which “supervisors of any county shall have power to require a lighter load on county roads in their respective counties.” Special permits were available to certain vehicles upon application to the state department of engineering.
Driving under the influence was not based on blood alcohol, there being no way to measure that at the time, so the law merely stated that “no person who is under the influence of intoxicating liquor and no person who is an habitual user of narcotic drugs” could operate a vehicle in the state. Punishment was six months to a year in county jail or one to three years in state prison and a fine ranging from $500 to $5000.
Another interesting variation from conditions now is that in the “right of way rule,” the provision was that “the operator of a vehicle shall yield the right of way at the intersection of their paths to a vehicle approaching from the right unless such vehicle approaching from the right is further from the point of the intersection of their paths that such first named vehicle.” For passing a vehicle, it was required that an audible sound or “suitable signal” be given before making that maneuver.
It is also notable that there was a provision to exercise “caution in passing; especially as to horses” because the main consideration was “to prevent the frightening of any such horse or horses” pulling vehicles or being ridden by a person. If a horse was frightened, the driver of the motor vehicle was expected to reduce speed or to stop and wait if a signal was given by the rider or driver controlling the animal(s). Provisions were also given for passing streetcars, including doing so at a speed of not more than ten miles per hour and at least six feet away from the running board of the car, unless there were marked safety zones on the roadway.
U-turns in “city districts,” meaning a business district “or closely built up territory” could only be done at intersections except for fire and police vehicles. It is also noteworthy that there was a provision that vehicles were forbidden to stop on highways for repairs “or for the purpose of camping” unless an impaired vehicle had no other choice but to stop on the road “and impracticable to remove the same therefrom until repair shall have been made.”
In addition to the banning of livestock from highways, it was also deemed necessary to state that “no person shall discharge any firearms on any public highway.” Also interesting to observe was that there was a general speed limit of 30 miles per hour unless someone driving during daytime and with at least 400 feet between vehicles, in which case the maximum speed was 35 miles per hour.
But, for those business districts and “closely built up” territories, the limit was 15 or 20 miles per hour, respectively. For rail crossings, curves, intersections where visibility was low, the limit was 15 mph, but that was lowered to 10 mph if the obstruction was within 400 feet of any of those conditions. Speeds could be lower at bridges, dams, culverts, rail trestles, viaducts and causeways if so decided by the state highway commission. Truck speeds were generally five miles per hour less than other motor vehicles, with weight of the truck deciding the speed limit.
The act also called for county supervisors to, within six months, erect warning signs for grade crossings at no less than 300 feet from these. These, of course, were the steel signs for railroad crossings that were in use until lights and lighted gates came into being.
Another provision of interest was that persons placing glass, nails, tacks, wire, cans and other materials “likely to injure any person, animal or vehicle, were guilty of a misdemeanor. This was also the level of crime for a willful injuring of a vehicle, and getting into a vehicle without the owner’s consent. A judge has the discretion to suspend any license for up to a month and then forward the matter for review of the DMV.
The act also provided for a “Motor Vehicle Fund” to be filled with any funds generated by the motor vehicle department as well as a “Transfer and Operators’ License Fund” with the latter comprised of licensing fees. The funds of both were to be used for the building and maintaining of roads, bridges and culverts with monies disbursed from the state treasury to the counties for these purposes. Fines and forfeitures, however, were to remain in the counties and expended also for the construction and maintenance of roads, streets, bridges and culverts with distinctions made for incorporated and unincorporated areas.
The back cover of the pamphlet lists Auto Club officers, directors, advisory board members, the address of the headquarters (then at Figueroa between 13th and 14th streets and now further south near U.S.C.) and the 19 branch offices. Among the directors were Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, former United States Senator Frank P. Flint, and utility figure A.C. Balch. Advisory board members, with one each from the eleven southern California counties, included Riverside’s Mission Inn proprietor Frank Miller.
There is more to the act than these aspects, but these were selected because of how different they are from what exist now or because they may still be substantively in effect but have varied or changed. Naturally, today’s California Vehicle Code (CVC) is much longer and more complex than its 1919 ancestor, so it is interesting to see how much has changed in the course of a century.