FEDERAL REGISTRATION BY THE UNITED STATES
The initial idea for a national registration system seems to have arisen at least by 1904. The main benefit of such a plan was to circumvent inconsistencies between various state and local laws pertaining to motor vehicles, primarily the issue of reciprocity. Ironically, only ten states had registration laws by the end of 1904, but many major cities and counties had ordinances as well.
Full reciprocity is the recognition by one jurisdiction of another jurisdiction's motor vehicle registration indefinitely, with no requirement that non-residents register while visiting. Partial reciprocity means that such recognition (and exemption from registration) is limited in some manner, such as to a certain time of year, to a very temporary amount of time, or to only those jurisdictions which grant similar recognition in return. Non-residents could be given a grace period, required to purchase visitor tags, or allowed to enter freely if their home state had an agreement in place with the state being driven in.
Today, everyone is free to drive in all 50 United States and 10 provinces of Canada without having to stop and register in each new state or province along the way, and this has been the case for over 90 years. As a result, it's difficult to imagine how widespread and serious this problem was in the early years of motoring. The dilemma was particularly severe in the northeast, the busiest corridor of interstate commerce in the U.S.; at least 13 U.S. Congressmen tried to do something about it! To make a simple drive from New York City to Washington, D.C., one had to register in every state along the way, including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and the District of Columbia. (It was far cheaper and easier to make the trip by train.) In some cases, motorists had to change plates at the state line as well, with some having double-sided plates made up for this purpose. Many Washington-area motorists had to display three sets of plates: Maryland, Virginia and District of Columbia. Full reciprocity between the last two holdouts, Maryland and D.C., was not finally agreed upon until early 1924.
The earliest known reference to a federal registration proposal is in a December 1904 Cycle and Automotive Trade Journal article, which reported on a meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers (N.A.A.M.). At the meeting, the association's counsel submitted an opinion as follows: "That to require an automobilist to take out a license - State, township or county - was contrary to the Federal constitution and to the constitution of many of the States." The committee was reluctant to test the consitutionality of any license laws because a victory in one state did not mean success in other jurisdictions. The process of challenging each and every law would be too expensive and time-consuming, nor would success be assured, and the same would be true trying to influence new legislation in every state. Therefore, the idea was born to introduce a national measure through a department such as the Interstate Commerce Commission which would supercede all state and local laws, enabling unencumbered travel and commerce, a crucial component of the burgeoning new automotive industry.
The first national automobile registration bill to be introduced into Congress was H.R. 385 on December 4, 1905, by Rep. Edward Morrell of Pennsylvania. The bill was referred to the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, and probably died in committee, a fate met by most, if not all, similar bills. In all, 24 federal registration bills were submitted from 1905 through 1917 (not counting those of 1918 and later). None of them passed, so unlike many other countries, a national registration system never became a reality in the United States.
It is interesting to note that with each subsequent attempt, new bills acquired more details, even to the point of describing the exact design of United States license plates to be issued, yet at the same time, overall provisions were watered down. The closest a bill came to reaching passage seems to have been in 1910-11, by which time national registration would have been optional for those motorists desiring to travel in other states, and was to be in addition to the motorist's home state registration, not in lieu of it. The movement for federal registration gained its greatest momentum in 1910-11 when the Cocks and Wanger bills were up for consideration.
The 1909 Cocks bill, found in "The Law of Motor Vehicles" by Berkeley R. Davis, page 650, published in early 1911, was to be known as the "Motor Vehicle Act" and would have created a Motor Vehicle Bureau within the Department of Commerce and Labor. The bill, H.R. 5176, provided for optional registration of motor vehicles travelling interstate for a one-time fee of $5 (or $10 for dealers and manufacturers). Motorcycles were not included. Owners would be required to provide pairs of black-on-white plates with 3-inch-tall numbers and a state abbreviation prefix and "U.S." suffix, all in 1 1/2-inch-tall letters.
According to a March 6, 1910, news article in the Louisville (KY) Times, favorable action on the Cocks bill was fully expected. The American Automobile Association held a National Legislative Convention in Washington on February 15-17, 1910, where delegates were able to testify before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce at a hearing on the convention's final day. Senator Chauncey M. Depew of New York delivered one of the most effective addresses at the convention, stating that "In asking for a national registration law the delegates desire to secure, as has been done for the boats traveling on inland waters and crossing State lines, and for continental railroads, a Federal registration which will permit free and unobstructed travel across State lines."
The Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal reported in a May 5, 1910, article, that a petition in support of the national system, signed by 2,000 Chicago automobilists, was presented to Rep. Mann of Illinois, Chairman of the House Committee on Interstate Commerce, by Secretary Harry T. Clinton of the Chicago Motor Club. By this time, the part of the proposal that would create a new bureau was changed, and registration would now be
administered instead by the Office of Public Roads of the Department of Agriculture.
Seeing that the Cocks bill had become stalled in committee, a new bill with some important differences was introduced on February 7, 1911, by Irving P. Wanger of Pennsylvania, found on page 644 of "The Law of Motor Vehicles" by Berkeley R. Davis. Known as the "Federal Automobile Act", this one still exempted motorcycles, but would have allowed all other motor vehicles to register annually with the Office of Public Roads of the Department of Agriculture for a fee of $10, renewals $5. Annual operator's licenses would also be issued for $5. The license and registration year was to be January 1 to December 31.
Wanger's bill, H.R. 32570, was printed in the Congressional Record on March 4, 1911. Vehicles would remain registered under state law when in their home state, but would replace their home plate with the national one when leaving their state. Under this bill, the government would issue a pair of "number shields" with 4-inch-tall numbers, containing the letters "U.S." 2 inches tall above the numbers and the home state abbreviation above the year date below the numbers. "Such number shields shall be of a different color each year from the year next preceding." The bill also provided for national driver's licenses, complete with photo. "The Office of Public Roads may furnish to such licensee a suitable metal badge, with the distinctive number of the license thereon."
If this law had passed, license plate collectors would have, on top of state runs, an additional series of United States plates and badges to collect, starting with a U.S. 1911! But, time ran out during the third and final session of the 61st Congress, which adjourned in the spring of 1911, and both the Cocks and Wanger bills expired despite much hope and anticipation.
A Los Angeles Times news article on July 19, 1913, describes a bill introduced the day before by Rep. Joseph R. Knowland of California, providing for national motor vehicle registration and operator licensing, similar in all respects to the 1911 Wanger bill, even down to the number shields. "Knowland declared many European nations have adopted a plan of international regulation certificates to meet conditions largely similar to those prevailing within the United States. The bill was referred to the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, of which Knowland is a member."
The demise of any successful federal registration plan seems to have resulted primarily from the increasingly wide acceptance of uniform state motor vehicle bill language by the various state legislatures. By adopting more of the important standardized clauses, issues such as reciprocity slowly got ironed out during the 1910s, reducing the urgency of a national system. By the time the United States entered World War I, the subject disappeared off the nation's radar entirely.
The table below presents a complete list of national motor vehicle registration bills submitted to Congress before 1918.
KEY TO TABLE
Date introduced, Congress/Session, Bill number, Sponsor/State, Committee referred to:
AGF = Committee on Agriculture and Forestry
CIC = Committee on Interstate Commerce
IFC = Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce
JUD = Committee on the Judiciary
"A bill regulating the operation of automobiles and other
motor vehicles between the States."
"A bill providing for the regulation, identification, and
registration of motor vehicles engaged in interstate travel."
"A bill providing for the regulation, identification, and
registration of automobiles engaged in interstate commerce,
and the licensing of operators thereof."
2/28/1911, H.R. 32570 referred to the "Committee of the Whole
House on the state of the Union".
3/ 3/1911, H.R. 32570 printed in the Congressional Record in
preparation for vote.
Same as 5. plus "and for cooperation between the States and
the Federal Government in such purposes, and for distributing
the revenues arising hereunder between the States and the
(See Los Angeles Times article 7/19/1913)