Fact Check

Do You Need a Driver's License to Legally Operate a Car on Public Roads?

Despite what you may read on social media, you still need a driver's license to legally drive a car, and the U.S. Supreme Court hasn't ruled otherwise.

Published Jul 24, 2015

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that motorists need not have licenses to drive vehicles on public roads.

For years now, impressive-looking texts and documents have been circulated online under titles such as "U.S. Supreme Court Says No License Necessary to Drive Automobile on Public Highways/Streets," implying that some recent judicial decision has struck down the requirement that motorists possess state-issued driver's licenses in order to legally operate vehicles on public roads.

One example of this claim opens with an out-of-context quote before launching into a potpourri of case excerpts from the Supreme Court and lower courts:

"The right of a citizen to travel upon the public highway and to transport his property thereon, by horsedrawn carriage, wagon, or automobile, is not a mere privilege which may be permitted or prohibited at will, but a common right which he has under his right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Under this constitutional guaranty one may, therefore, under normal conditions, travel at his inclination along the public highways or in public places, and while conducting himself in an orderly and decent manner, neither interfering with nor disturbing another's rights, he will be protected, not only in his person, but in his safe conduct."

However, a full reading of the referenced case, Thompson v. Smith, 155 Va. 367 — Va: Supreme Court 1930 (available via Google Scholar) presents that inaugural quote in an entirely different context:

The right of a citizen to travel upon the public highways and to transport his property thereon in the ordinary course of life and business is a common right which he has under his right to enjoy life and liberty, to acquire and possess property, and to pursue happiness and safety. It includes the right in so doing to use the ordinary and usual conveyances of the day; and under the existing modes of travel includes the right to drive a horse-drawn carriage or wagon thereon, or to operate an automobile thereon, for the usual and ordinary purposes of life and business. It is not a mere privilege, like the privilege of moving a house in the street, operating a business stand in the street, or transporting persons or property for hire along the street, which a city may permit or prohibit at will.

The exercise of such a common right the city may, under its police power, regulate in the interest of the public safety and welfare; but it may not arbitrarily or unreasonably prohibit or restrict it, nor may it permit one to exercise it and refuse to permit another of like qualifications, under like conditions and circumstances, to exercise it.

The regulation of the exercise of the right to drive a private automobile on the streets of the city may be accomplished in part by the city by granting, refusing, and revoking, under rules of general application, permits to drive an automobile on its streets; but such permits may not be arbitrarily refused or revoked, or permitted to be held by some and refused to other of like qualifications, under like circumstances and conditions.

In other words, the court held that although the use of public roads is a right which citizens enjoy, local authorities may nonetheless regulate such use (including imposing a requirement that motor vehicle operators obtain licenses) so long as such regulations are reasonable, not arbitrary, and apply equally to everyone.

Another bit of context elided from the example article is the fact that in when the referenced decision was handed down by the Supreme Court of Virginia in 1930, several of the 48 states did not yet require motorists to possess driver's licenses to operate motor vehicles on public roads. Moreover, fewer than one in five Americans owned a car in the 1930s (a demographic that saw little upswing until after the end of World War II). Therefore, regulatory issues stemming from broader vehicle ownership and more modern vehicle operating conditions were still decades in the future at the time the ruling was issued.

No recent Supreme Court ruling has in any way challenged the legality of a requirement for driver's licenses. Driver's licenses are issued state by state (with varying requirements), not at the federal level or according to federal requirements. And driving without a license is indeed illegal in all 50 states.

Kim LaCapria is a former writer for Snopes.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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