In 1886, German inventor Karl Benz patented what is generally regarded as the first modern car. Less than two decades later, in 1903, Massachusetts and Missouri became the first states to require a driver’s license, although it wasn’t necessary to pass a test to obtain one. In 1908, Henry Ford launched the Model T, the first affordable automobile for many middle-class Americans. (In 1919, when Ford’s native state of Michigan started issuing driver’s licenses, he got his first one at age 56.) The same year the Model T debuted, Rhode Island became the first state to require both a license and a driver’s exam (Massachusetts instituted a chauffeur exam in 1907 and started requiring tests for all other drivers in 1920).
California, now known for its car culture, started requiring licenses in 1913 and exams in 1927. However, it took several decades for licenses and tests to be adopted by all states. In 1930, only 24 states required a license to drive a car and just 15 states had mandatory driver’s exams. South Dakota was the last state to begin issuing licenses (without exams), in 1954. Additionally, a handful of states didn’t impose driver’s tests until the 1950s, including Alaska (1956), Arizona (1951), Idaho (1951), Illinois (1953), Missouri (1952) and Wisconsin (1956). In 1959, South Dakota became the final state to institute a driver’s exam requirement.
Getting a license was long considered a rite of passage for many American teenagers; however, in recent years the number of young people who are legal to drive has declined. Around 77 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 24 had driver’s licenses in 2014, compared with almost 92 percent in 1983, according to a 2016 report by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Among 16 year olds, less than 25 percent had licenses in 2014, down from about 46 percent in 1983. Although the study didn’t cite specific reasons for the drop, other research has suggested that contributing factors include new transportation options as well as the Internet, which has made it possible for people to socialize and shop online instead of getting in a car to do so.