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California DMV History

As hard as it is to picture life in California without dealing with the DMV, the department didn't always exist. Prior to the invention of the automobile, there was no need for the California DMV. After all, there was no license required to drive a horse-drawn carriage.

However, as the automobile became an inescapable fixture of modern life, it was clear that the new contraption would have to be regulated. In first few years of the 20th century, this function was handled by city and county governments, who also licensed other wheeled vehicles such as bicycles. In 1905, this job was moved up to the state level and was handled by the secretary of state. In order to legally drive a car, the owner first had to register it with the secretary of state, who would insure that it was in good working order and safe to drive. Back in those days, it only cost $2.00 to register your car!

At the beginning of the automobile era, it appears that the state had no idea who should handle keeping track of the cars that were appearing on California roads in ever-increasing numbers. Just 8 years after the secretary of state began registering cars, the task was transferred to the state treasurer. After December 31, 1913, not only did cars have to be licensed, but drivers did, too. A few short years later in 1915, the California DMV was born and took over the functions of licensing and registration.

According to the DMV's website, in 1905 there were 17,015 registered automobiles in the entire state of California. By 1915, when the Department was created, there were 191,000 vehicles. With such a huge increase in car ownership in just one decade, it's easy to see why the state needed an entire department dedicated to the automobile!

In 1921, the DMV became part of the Division of Motor Vehicles, part of California's finance department. However, 10 years later, in 1931, it became an independent government entity once more. In 1923, the police arm of the DMV, the California Highway Patrol, was created as part of the California Vehicle Act. In 1935, the California Vehicle Code was enacted so that whole state of California would be on the same page when it came to the rules of the road. The DMV is still responsible for enforcing the Vehicle Code and keeping records of violations.

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