In an era of furious texters and backseat movie screenings for rowdy kids, the car radio seems like the least of our driving distractions. But back before the transistor and the Great Depression, the newfangled radio was cast by one Massachusetts bureaucrat as a roadway menace. He worried that the noise itself was a distraction, that changing stations meant removing a driver's eyes from the road, that soft music could lull a motorist to sleep. It could even, he said, distract the driver in another car if the windows were open. If the arguments sound familiar even today, then perhaps George A. Parker's proposal to ban the car radio altogether isn't surprising.
First, talking pictures. Now, this
Parker became Massachusetts registrar of motor vehicles in 1928. One of his first actions was to back legislation requiring a motorist's neighbors to endorse his moral fitness to drive. Rebuffed, Parker took on another imminent threat: radio. The first custom-fitted automobile radios were reaching stores in 1930, the tipping point for a technology that had been emerging for years. And maybe Parker had a point. The first car radios came wrapped in giant, sharp-cornered tin boxes, unaffixed to the car itself, and accompanied by unwieldy antennas. (This 1922 Popular Mechanics reprint shows one consuming the entire roof of a touring sedan.) Tuning was accomplished by means of giant knobs; the first push-button radios didn't appear for another decade. When wired into the car's generator, the radios were prone to spark electrical fires. Yet, it was the driver's attention that most worried Parker. Parker lobbied hard for a ban on car radios, mostly with state senators and a skeptical public. Parker believed that once he had the Massachusetts locals in tow, the rest of the country would soon follow. Other states, he told the Christian Science Monitor in 1930, were "hanging on the fence," waiting for a state bold enough to make the first move.
Parker's move -- and a similar effort in St. Louis -- prompted the powerful industry to act. The Radio Manufacturers Association (now the Telecommunications Industry Association) jumped in, pointing out that $5 million had been spent on research and development. Its findings? Radios were, indeed, safe. Supporters rallied at a public hearing in the Massachusetts capital, Springfield. Clarence E. Colby, an association lobbyist, told the audience that the radio was not nearly as distracting as a backseat driver or an argumentative passenger, according to the Boston Globe.