A brief history of distracted driving

We've been driving with only one eye on the road since long before the first cell phone.

With a plethora of electronics gizmos in our pockets, we're the most distracted generation in human history -- and one place that's bad news is on the highway, where we're expected to navigate thousand-pound slabs of metal at 60+ miles an hour. But while the legal and social backlash against distracted driving is a relatively recent phenomenon, there've been plenty of opportunities for our minds to wander for almost as long as we've been on the road.

The Highway HiFi

Before CDs, before iPhones, there was the very first in-car audio system that didn't subject you to the whims of radio: the Highway HiFi. Installed in select Chrysler models from 1956 to 1959, the HiFi was a record turntable that fit into your dashboard. It was not a great success: the disc format was proprietary and only a limited number of records, all from Columbia, were available; and the units were maintenance nightmares, which no doubt resulted in lots of distracted fumbling with record needles as drivers barreled down the highway in Eisenhower-era behemoths.


The 8-track cassette (formally known as the Stereo-8 Cartridge) may be the first audio format that originated to distract you from your driving duties: it was developed specifically for automotive use, and only later was adopted for the home. The satisfying noise it made when you inserted the cartridge into the player, to say nothing of the CHUNK when you pressed the button to advance a track, made it irresistible to fiddle with when you should've been paying attention to the road. At least there wasn't any way to fast-forward or rewind it.

The cigarette lighter power outlet

One of the most interesting examples of repurposing in tech history is the automobile cigarette lighter, which originally just drew power from a car's battery to heat up a filament and gradually became a clunky de facto standard for electrical accessories. And once engineers figured out this little hack, the number of things you could buy car-specific versions of soared. A curling iron, for your car? Sure, why not! With smoking on the decline and distracted driving at an all-time high, many cars now have multiple cigarette lighter-derived power outlets but no actual cigarette lighters. (More standard USB outlets are starting to appear too.)


You might think of GPS as a useful driving tool, not a distraction, but there's plenty of evidence that navigation systems can guide you to your destination but keep you from paying attention to what's around you, as well as lull you into a false sense of security about the route you're taking. This video (jump to the 6:20 mark) takes you back in time to 1993, the early days of civilian GPS, as an Australian demonstrates a prototype's use to navigate mysterious Florida. By the end of 1994, the New York Times reported that you could buy your very own GPS-equipped car, though it had to be an Oldsmobile and you had to live in California.

Cup holders

The accessory to hold your beverages while you drove had humble and somewhat awkward beginnings, as the image here demonstrates, but when drive-in culture started taking off in the United States in the '50s, Americans became more and more keen to accommodate the simultaneous eat-drive. Need we point out that eating is one of the most distracting things you can do behind the wheel? One auto insurance company went so far as to compile a list of the most dangerous foods to eat while driving, with hot soup (soup!) somehow only coming in at #2.


Cup holders for food?

The modern-day cup holder, in the sense of a cup-shaped impression in an injection-molded armrest, became more or less standardized with the arrival of the Dodge Caravan in 1983. And just as the cup holder sought to emulate customers' cups, so too did fast food seek to build the perfect thing to fill those omnipresent cup holders. Eating fried chicken and potatoes out of a cup might seem weird to someone from the year 1950, but in today's world it honestly makes perfect sense.

The birth of cell phones

Of course, the cell phone is the ultimate driving distractor. While we think of the in-car phone era as arriving with the age of handheld mobile phones, which didn't really take off until the '80s, there were actually in-car units as early as the 1940s; Geoffrey C. Fors has some glorious pictures of the huge, clunky units that were in (limited) use in the post-war era. You can spot some of these early car phones in the late '50s spy show Peter Gunn; as you can see at 10:08 in this video, our hero uses the phone for espionage, while parked, thus maintaining a good safety record.

Cell phone laws

Cell phones and driving have slowly become a less and less legal combination in the United States, unlike, say, driving and hair curlers or chicken-in-a-cup. Florida, of all places, was the pioneer, placing legal restrictions on cell phone use while operating a car way back in 1992. But more and more states hopped on the bandwagon in the early '00s as cell phone use began to become mainstream.

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Distracted by your car itself

The humble dashboard, once home to staid mechano-analog dials, is becoming an increasingly distracted digital wonderland. Microsoft tried wedging Windows CE into automobile dashboards as early as 1998; today, cars are well on their way to having the equivalent of a glass cockpit, just one giant LCD for a dashboard. At least some steps are being made to make things slightly less distracting; many in-dash computers can't be programmed while the car is in motion, not even by bored passengers.