When the Car Radio Was Introduced, People Freaked Out

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Is texting while driving total insanity or just one more inevitable tide of modern life? (Spoiler alert: It's total insanity.) But was the radio met with similar opposition when it was first introduced to the car?

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In 1930, laws were proposed in Massachusetts and St. Louis to ban radios while driving. According to automotive historian Michael Lamm, “Opponents of car radios argued that they distracted drivers and caused accidents, that tuning them took a driver’s attention away from the road, and that music could lull a driver to sleep.”

Even the Auto Club of New York agreed. In their 1934 poll, 56 percent deemed the car radio a “dangerous distraction.” Arguing the other side was the Radio Manufacturers Association, who pointed out that car radios could be used to warn drivers of inclement weather and bad road conditions, as well as keeping them awake when they got drowsy.

A little history on the car radio: The first one was introduced in 1922 by Chevrolet. It cost a whopping $200, and with an antenna that covered the car’s entire roof, batteries that barely fit under the front seat and two mammoth speakers attached behind the seat, it was about as convenient as taking a live orchestra along for a ride.

By the early 1930s, the less cumbersome built-in Motorola radios were standard features in cars. Later in the decade, push-button tuning and presets helped drivers to select stations without taking their eyes off the road. By 1946, 9 million cars had radios. Thanks to the transistor, both size and price came way down, so that by 1963, 50 million cars – over 60 percent – were outfitted with radios. By then, over one third of America’s radio listening occurred in the car.

And those anti-radio laws? Though a few were signed in small municipalities, they mostly went nowhere. Unlike the current anti-texting laws.

Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have now banned text messaging while driving. And the tickets are already piling up. In New York last year, over 5,000 texting tickets have been written (each carries a $150 fine plus two points).

Common sense tells us that texting while driving is hazardous. Since it is a relatively new phenomenon, its correlation to accidents is still under study. But here are some statistics that you may find more OMFG than LOL:

According to tests at the University of Utah, a driver is 4 times more likely to cause an accident while driving drunk or talking on a cell phone. And 8 times more likely to cause an accident while texting.
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A 2009 study conducted by Car and Driver magazine measured two drivers’ reaction times to the onset of a simulated brake light on their front windshields. The unimpaired driver took .45 seconds to brake and traveled 4 feet before stopping. The texting driver took .57 seconds to brake and traveled 41 feet before stopping.
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According to statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 5,870 people died in texting-related car crashes in 2008.
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The same texting-related statistics revealed that 515,000 people were injured in various car crashes in the United States. Around 28 percent of all crashes in 2008 were caused by drivers in the age group of 18 and 29, who admitted to texting while driving.
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But it’s not just young people. The texting-while-driving statistics in 2010 compiled by Pew Research Center revealed that 47 percent of adults resort to texting as compared to 34 percent of teenagers. The same stats revealed that 75 percent of adults resort to phone conversation while driving as compared to 52 percent of teenagers.

Stats aside, is it even relevant to compare car radios and texting? You could argue that for the average American back in the 1930s, operating an automobile was as involved and treacherous as flying a plane. Levers, buttons, gauges, stick shift. Add the extra ball of a radio into that attention-juggling equation, and you were asking for a fender bender.

Eighty years on, the car radio is just another part of the dashboard. But to some, it remains suspect. In 2002, the NHTSA blamed 66% of the 43,000 fatal car crashes on “Playing with the radio or CD.”

Still, there’s a big difference between tuning a radio dial and texting. The first requires one eye and a split second. The other requires both eyes, and several seconds or more. Plus most of your attention.

That so many of us believe that we can handle texting while driving (and full disclosure, I stupidly tried to do it once and nearly rear-ended the car in front of me) is tied to the myth of multi-tasking. Scientists have shown that the brain cannot really focus on multiple tasks simultaneously. What it can do is shift from one to the next with astonishing speed. But car accidents can also happen with equally astonishing speed. Plus, there are many factors beyond our control, not the least of which are other drivers and pedestrians who may also be distracted by anything from drinking coffee to having a conversation to texting. Suddenly, we’re in a world of Mr. Magoos.

With momentum hurtling us toward a federal ban on texting while driving, all of this may soon be beside the point. But knowing of the varied range of Mental Floss readers in age, interests and beliefs, we’d like to know . . .

What do you think?

Note: The original introduction to this story was about me noticing someone texting while they were driving. It described a typical scene, one that I encounter a few times a week. But three days after I turned in this piece, I was nearly killed by some guy who was texting while driving. It was 10 o’clock in the morning. I was returning from the gym. Driving on a side street, I saw the car coming towards me swerve gradually, then fully, into my lane. Though we were both going about 30 mph, it all seemed to be happening in slow motion. As the car got closer, I saw the young guy who was driving, holding his cell phone up on the steering wheel with one hand, while with the other, he was typing. He didn’t see me, or the road in front of him. I laid on the horn, and skidded onto someone’s front lawn to avoid a head-on collision. The guy swerved back into his lane and drove away. It was a case of life imitating mentalfloss.com. Well, better life than death.

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January 3, 2012 - 1:53pm
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