There was no driver’s license exam in 1911, which was probably just as well; few people would have passed it.

(RIGHT: Fourth street, looking east from between B and A streets. The white building with the red and white awning on the left is currently labeled the “Zap building”. Image courtesy Larry Lapeere collection)

Automobiles had claimed Santa Rosa’s downtown streets by that year – in the postcard shown to the right there is not a single horse-drawn buggy or cart, nor a telltale plop of manure (but note the guy toodling down the wrong side of the street).

There were more cars to be seen simply because more households had cars, and that was because they were now far more affordable. The basic Ford model “T” had been recently introduced to Northern California and it cost $695, or about the same as the town’s average household annual income (and by 1915, a new Ford would cost only half as much). Better still, Studebaker dealerships began offering a revolutionary new thing called an “auto loan.” Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley did journalistic backflips of joy announcing the news, introducing it as dialog between characters from a series of popular humorous short stories: “Cheer up. You’ll get one yet. Automobiles are to be sold on the installment plan from now on. It’s a fine day Mawruss! Can you beat it?” (“Mawruss” was the name “Morris” spoken in Eastern European dialect.)

Each of those new cars was supposed to be registered with the state (two dollars a year, please) but until 1914 there was no requirement that Mr. or Ms. Reckless Driver have a license, much less any knowhow on how to operate the machine safely. The exceptions were “chauffeurs,” which in that era meant any driver-for-hire. A chauffeur had to be 21, personally registered with California’s Secretary of State along with the make and horsepower of the vehicle, and wear at all times while driving a numbered aluminum badge “upon his clothing in a conspicuous place.” But while the applicant had to swear an oath that he had at least three months experience behind the wheel and “was familiar with the mechanism of motor vehicles,” there was no provision for revoking the license should the person prove incompetent. Most of the law concerned instead the description and treatment of the badge.

But even if drivers were required to pass some sort of written state test, it would have been so short as to fit on a postcard (unless it included questions about that damn badge). California motor vehicle laws were few and rudimentary – don’t endanger people or property, be careful while passing horses, operate at a reasonable speed, and that sort of thing. It wasn’t until 1911 that the state even required drivers to stop after a collision and made drunk driving a serious offense.

Instead, California relied upon cities and counties to set their own rules of the road, which ended up creating a crazy quilt of inconsistent laws. In Petaluma motorcycles were required to have mufflers; not so in Santa Rosa (many bikers apparently believe this is still the case). Santa Rosa drivers were required to toot their horns near intersections. Lake County required motorists to pull off the road and turn off their engine if a horse was approaching.

Worst of all were the inconsistent speed limits. Santa Rosa had set a single speed limit of 10 MPH in 1908 (amid much griping from car owners that it was so slow that engines might stall) which was about the speed of a bicyclist – an important comparison point to know, as many cars did not have speedometers. But Oakland had a speed limit of 18 MPH in residential areas while L.A. traffic ordinances set the speed limits of 12 MPH downtown, 8 MPH in tunnels and 20 MPH otherwise, except for track crossings when 6 MPH was the max. Driving over 30 MPH in Los Angeles was a mandatory ten days or more in jail.

Before radar guns, policemen learned to use stopwatches – and thus was born the speed trap.

Santa Rosa’s historian and humorist Tom Gregory joked that the city streets were a potential “gold mine” if only the city were to crack down on speeders. (Five years earlier, he proposed a similar idea to profit on bicyclists riding on sidewalks.) “The streets out in the vicinity of Grace Brothers Park [intersection of College and Fourth] would yield a rich monthly revenue, and Mendocino avenue north of Cherry street would pay the salary of the plain-clothes man stationed in that locality,” he suggested. Everyone would benefit, Gregory teased; the ticket-writing officer in the police force – “each man of it stacks up like a Greek god” – would ride like a king in splendor down to the station where the offender would pay the speeding ticket. And besides, the tickets would be like a badge of honor for many car owners: “The sporty driver would like nothing better than several notches on his steering wheel, recording the number of fines he had paid. Such would prove his mettle and establish his standing as an up-to-date car buster.”

New Law Passed by Legislature Will Be Bar to Future Careless Driving

A check to intemperance on the part of a driver of an automobile, or other motor vehicle is placed by a law just enacted by the Legislature. The danger of an intoxicated driver having been very apparent on many occasions in different parts of the State, a law was introduced and passed. It provides as follows:


– Press Democrat, April 8, 1911

Important Innovation in Selling Methods Now Being Inaugurated by Studebaker Corporation

Cheer up. You’ll get one yet. Automobiles are to be sold on the installment plan from now on. It’s a fine day Mawruss! Can you beat it?

The Studebaker Corporation, the $45,000,000 concern which manufactures the “E. M. F.” and “Flanders” cars, is about to inaugurate an entirely new policy in the matter of selling its product, and one that will in all probability revolutionize automobile salesmanship. Notices are now being sent out to agents of the company in references to the matter.

In brief, the company’s plan is to accept part cash with notes for the balance from responsible parties. Of course, to a concern in a position to finance such commercial paper, notes from the right parties are as good as the cash. But heretofore the purchase of an automobile has been a cash proposition, that is, as far as the manufacturing company was concerned. If an agent here and there found himself in a position to accommodate a customer and did so, it was his own business. When the machine was shipped from the factory the money had to be there to pay for it.

It is generally conceded that the new plan of selling now being inaugurated by the Studebaker Corporation is the most important innovation that has for years developed in connection with the automobile industry. It means that the automobile has ceased to be a luxury and has become a recognized necessity, and as such takes its place on the same plane with other necessities of business life, practically all of which with the exception of the auto has been sold “on terms to suit.”


– Press Democrat, December 9, 1911

Chief J. M. Boyes desires to call the special attention of all automobile owners and drivers to the law which requires machines to be equipped with two bright lights in front and a red light in the rear, showing to the opposite direction. Also to the fact that the law requires drivers to sound a warning with a horn as they approach corners. Orders have been issued calling for a strict compliance with the law as it is equally important as that limiting the speed.

Three more speed burners were arrested Sunday by the police for exceeding the speed limits within the city limits. Each put up $15 which City Recorder Bagley declared forfeited Monday when he called court.

– Press Democrat, May 30, 1911

Editor the Press Democrat: Touching the “matter of rights on the streets or public highways, and the general rights of vehicles thereon,” in this locality as ably referred to in your issue of Wednesday morning, I desire to add a paragraph. I am not reflecting on the financial foresight of our city governors when I say that this municipality has here, within its limits, a mine, and the good yellow metal–free gold, and oodles of it, is not utilized. O, the shame of it! The mother lode stretches along Fourth street from the railroad on the west to the cityline on the east. The outcroppings of paying ore show well all along the way, increasing in value as it nears McDonald avenue. East of that point the rock will assay pure gold, 24-carats fine. A branch ledge runs north along Mendocino avenue, growing stronger in the indications as it approaches and passes College avenue, when it abruptly shows free gold. Another branch ledge swings off at right angles from the main lode, running down Main street to the creek. Across the bridge the outcrop is so rich that it is practically minted and ready for circulation.

This is not a guessing contest, and the point appears: Every day of the year, and many nights of the year, at the east, west, north and south localities of the thoroughfares given in the foregoing, automobiles and motorcycles are driven at a rate of speed regardless of the “matter of rights on the streets and public highways, and the general rights or vehicles thereon.” Not only are these machines turned loose to burn up the miles at these points remote from the policeman’s sight, but around the plaza and in the central portion of the city they rush along the streets with no regard for the rules-of-the-road, right side, left side, any old side–whirling the corners, cutting the segment of the curb, endangering life and motor, hurrying to get somewhere, anywhere, under the drive of the speed-fiend that roosts on the steering wheel of these rushing machines. Occasionally the slow-moving and harmless bicyclist is picked up on the sidewalk, but the autoist, hurling his ponderous mass of wood and steel among pedestrians and other vehicles, goes free. Why? I have seen women and small children in the streets of Santa Rosa spring frantically from before a speeding automobile, whose driver should have been arrested and fined. I saw a young fellow in his big car the size of a locomotive, drive as close to a lady scrambling across the street as he could without hitting her, and he whizzed past highly amused at her fright.

The city needs money, and here is the gold mine. Let measures be taken to check and regulate this rush of motors in the crowded streets. Let measures be taken to watch the thoroughfares beyond the police beats. The streets out in the vicinity of Grace Brothers Park would yield a rich monthly revenue, and Mendocino avenue north of Cherry street would pay the salary of the plain-clothes man stationed in that locality. And the gleanings from Petaluma and Sebastopol avenues and the ordinary pick-ups in the vicinity of the court house would sweep the streets. The auto folks wont [sic] mind it. The sporty driver would like nothing better than several notches on his steering wheel, recording the number of fines he had paid. Such would prove his mettle and establish his standing as an up-to-date car buster. Moreover, every conscientious autoist would be glad to have him “run in” at lightning speed, and much good money burned out of him. The summer is coming–and so are the hosts of automobiles. The town does not need them, but it needs the coin of the speed breakers–domestic and foreign. We have a fine police force. Each man of it stacks up like  a Greek god. The blue of his uniform is as deep in dye as the royal purple of Tyre, and the gleam of his buttons makes the noonday look twilightish. How fitting his personal splendor would be a grand auto-car and he aboard it like a king enthroned, on his way to the police station–for the purpose of observing the owner of the machine donate a bunch of dollars to this needy municipality. That would be a parade worth while, and the grand cop would be making money, and history for the town.

Tom Gregory.

– Press Democrat, May 26, 1911

A prominent Santa Rosa woman is much enthused over the fact that in the city of Petaluma they have adopted a new ordinance, which compels riders of motorcycles to put mufflers on their machines and thus stop the distracting noise that often frightens and annoys people and startles horses. She is heartily in favor of the Santa Rosa city council adopting a similar ordinance, and so expressed her sentiments when she called for that purpose at the Press Democrat office. The city dads may be applied to later on.

– Press Democrat, July 21, 1911

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