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Plan Motor Vehicle Commission With State-Wide License Law

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

American Government

Plan Motor Vehicle Commission With State-Wide License Law

The New York Times
December 3, 1922

Bill Drafted for Albany Legislature Providing Distinct Department for Better Enforcement Methods in Interest of Highway Safety.

Important changes in the regulation of motor vehicles in New York State are expected to be made at Albany during the forthcoming session of the legislature.  A bill is being drafted for early introduction into both houses providing for a distinct Motor Vehicle Department, the head of which will be known as the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles.  The general scope of the bill, it is said, meets the approval of many legislators who have given careful study to the methods of proper motor vehicle enforcement, and is also favored by many automobile representatives who have long recognized the weakness of the present New York system as compared with the enforcement policies in neighboring States.

In addition to this bill there will also be a Statewide operators' license bill, requiring all drivers of cars throughout the State to take out, at a reasonable fee, an operating license.  At present this is only required from residents of New York City.  Practically all of the other Eastern States have a State operating law, and the lack of it here has prevented New York from co-operating as harmoniously as might be wished with adjacent States on the basis of motor vehicle law uniformity.

If the plan for a motor vehicle department is carried out, the existing law will doubtless be amended so as to give power to the Motor Vehicle Commissioner to suspend or revoke licenses.  This power is now restricted to county Judges and City Magistrates.  There is no intention to take that away, but it is felt that equal power should logically be vested with the department charged with the enforcement acts.

Since July 1, 1921, the motor vehicle law has been administered by the Tax Commission.  Prior to that time it was part of the duty of the Secretary of State.  Neither of these systems has given complete satisfaction.  It seems to be generally recognized that the Tax Commission has enough to do without being burdened with motor vehicle regulation.  Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and other States have separate departments.  New York has more cars registered within its boundaries than any other State in the Union, practically 1,000,000 passenger cars and trucks now being registered.  In addition there are several thousand chauffeurs and operators.

Responsible Motor Commissioner.

The merit of a distinct motor vehicle department lies in the fact that it will be administered by a responsible head and not subject to constant changes.  The enormous number of accidents and the demand for some sound policy providing greater highway safety have led many motorists and others who have studied the situation to feel that some radical changes in the method of enforcement are urgently needed. This phase of the situation was exemplified last week when Judge McIntyre, in General Sessions, sentencing a chauffeur to three years in the penitentiary, called the road tests and motor license examinations as conducted by the State "farcical."

"In this State," said Theodore B. Pratt, Executive Secretary of the Motor Truck Association and who advocated a Motor Vehicle Commission a year ago, "where accidents and casualties connected with motor vehicles are all too common, there is a loud cry that steps be taken to reduce them.  Various measures have been suggested, all well enough intentioned, but equally futile.  There is only one real way to reduce the number of these accidents.  That is by regulation and control of motor vehicles and their operators with an eye single to the enhancing of the safety of our roads.

"Under the present laws these things cannot properly be done.  Those in charge of the Motor Vehicle Bureau in New York do the best within their power, but their power under the law is not sufficient to cope with the evil which has grown up around us.  If New York is going to attack the problem—and attack it with the intention of conquering it, as far as humanly possible, it must do two things—organize a Motor Vehicle Department, the head of which will be directly responsible to the Governor, and license all operators of motor vehicles.

"With these two things done, the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles can accomplish much.  The department must be taken out of politics.  A good man must be placed at the head who will primarily be charged with the duty of reducing accidents and deaths, instead of collecting every penny he can from motorists.

"He should have wide powers of suspension and revocation of licenses, which of course would be futile unless every operator is licensed.  This must be done, regardless of the fact that the hired man down on the farm may have to lose a day's work when he goes to get his license to drive.

"The department should be well manned with enough competent examiners and inspectors to see that no one incompetent to drive, whether physically or mentally, is allowed to do so."

Motor Law Changes.

Mr. Pratt also suggests that the motor law should be changed so that fines for violations should go to the State and cities and towns prohibited from enacting ordinances contrary to the provisions of the State law.  This would, however, leave the allotting of certain streets to special classes of traffic, the designating of one-way streets and parking provisions in the hands of localities where conditions vary, but all other matters would be subject to State regulation.  The main features would include weights, dimensions, speeds, lights and right of way.  The ultimate result would be a uniform regulation of all matters common to the whole State.

More efficient enforcement methods might lead to enlarging the State police by establishing a motor vehicle squad to patrol the highways, with the disciplinary control in the hands of the State Constabulary, but the expense of outfitting and maintaining borne by the motor vehicle department.  All the revenue derived from motor vehicles, after deducting the sum necessary for maintaining the department, would be turned over for highway work.

"At present 25 per cent. of the amount collected in motor vehicle fees from each county," explains Mr. Pratt, "reverts to that county for highway purposes, so that no county would lose by this change in method of handling the funds.  The Highway Department should be allowed to allot to each county for road purposes the same percentage of payments as is now done, with the added proviso that the Highway Department will do so only upon approval of the route and type of road to be constructed and only when the county appropriation for the same work equals in amount.  These provisos will prevent local or petty politics from entering into the highway situation, will distribute the money equally and will also prevent the policy of the "most miles for the money" being followed as the residents of each county, having to meet their own appropriations, will be careful to see that the money is not wasted.  This in time will result in a better, more comprehensive plan of highway construction and a better grade of road building, as it is assumed the Highway Department will not allot these funds unless it is convinced of the justice and need of the expenditure."

The tentative draft of the Motor Vehicle Department bill provides for a Commissioner at a salary of $10,000, a First Deputy at $7,500, and a Second Deputy at $6,000.  The last named will be in charge of the New York City bureau.  The bill provides that the Commissioner shall be a practical and experienced motor vehicle operator.  His term of office will be four years, subject to removal by the Governor for official misconduct or incompetency.  His term of office, under the bill, would begin July 1, 1923.  The Commissioner would be appointed by the Governor with consent of the Senate.

In regard to accidents, the bill provides more stringent regulations than required in the existing law, being in harmony with the regulations of the Connecticut law and that of other States.  It provides that:

"The operator of any motor vehicle involved in and having any knowledge of any accident resulting in personal injury, or apparent damage to property to an extent in excess of $10, shall within forty-eight hours thereafter make a written report of such accident to the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, which report shall, as nearly as may be ascertained, state the time, place and cause of such accident, and the injuries occasioned thereby.

"The Commissioner of Motor Vehicles may make such further investigation of such accident as as shall seem to him advisable, and for such purpose he may require the assistance of the State police.  The Commissioner of Motor Vehicles shall take such action as may be necessary to enforce a strict compliance with the provisions of this section, and shall report to prosecuting officers in the village, city or county in which the accident occurred any failure to make a report.  Any person who shall fail to make a report as required by the provisions of this section shall be fined not less than $10 nor more than $50, and his license shall be suspended forthwith."

The lack of a State operating license law makes it possible for New York motorists whose recklessness or carelessness causes accidents in other States to escape the penalties imposed upon such drivers from other States.  In his recent talk on motor vehicle enforcement in this city, Alden L. McMurtry, formerly consulting engineer of the Connecticut commission, deplored this lack of reciprocity with New York.

"To allow an operator to go to an adjoining State," he said, "and commit violations without having a record of such violations in his home State is defeating the purpose of the ideal motor vehicle regulation.  Close administrative relations between the various States are highly important.  Since discipline over operators through suspension and revocation of their licenses is only possible through the State which has licensed them, reciprocity covering this point is essential.  Any act requiring the suspension or revocation of a Connecticut operator's license while in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland is followed by that action in Connecticut.

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