In the United States, driver licenses are issued by the individual states for their residents. Protecting the public interest is the primary purpose of driver’s licenses. They are required for operating all types of motor vehicles. Driver licenses are also used as an important form of photo identification in the United States, particularly in many non-driving situations where proof of identity or age is required. As identification, they are useful for boarding airline flights, cashing checks, and showing proof of age for activities such as purchasing alcoholic beverages.
The first driver’s licenses were issued in Paris in 1893. To obtain one of these licenses, the driver was required to know how to repair his own car as well as drive it. In the United States, vehicle registration began in 1901. Licensing drivers began in 1916, and by the mid-1920s there were age requirements and other restrictions on who could be licensed to operate an automobile.
This authority is delegated to the states, although from the earliest years there have been challenges to particular aspects of state licensing laws, as well as outright challenges to the states’ rights to license vehicles and drivers. With respect to the latter issue, the U.S. Supreme Court noted in 1915 in the case of Hendrick v. Maryland that “The movement of motor vehicles over the highways is attended by constant and serious dangers to the public and is also abnormally destructive to the [high]ways themselves…. [A] state may rightfully prescribe uniform regulations necessary for public safety and order in respect to the operation upon its highways of all motor vehicles—those moving in interstate commerce as well as others…. This is but an exercise of the police power uniformly recognized as belonging to the states and essential to the preservation of the health, safety, and comfort of their citizens” 235 US 610.
Driver’s licenses perform several vital functions. When they were first issued in the United States, driver’s licenses were meant to verify that the holder had complied with the regulations associated with operating a motor vehicle. In addition to verifying compliance with state laws, driver’s licenses have become an almost essential form of identification for individuals, law enforcement authorities, and others who require validation of identity. Later, photographs were added to aid in positive identification and to help reduce instances of fraud. Other measures to prevent counterfeiting driver’s licenses include using thumb print and hologram images on the license. Today, many states issues licenses with magnetic strips and bar codes to provide for the electronic recording of driver license information if a traffic citation is issued.