Rules of the Road: Highway Safety

As more and more Iowans bought cars it became clear that drivers needed rules and guidelines. They also needed better roads. In 1904 the state government set up a commission to deal with driving and road issues. That marked the beginning of many changes for the transportation system in the state. It meant changes for drivers too.

A Commission Takes Control

The first big change occurred when a highway commission was formed. An act by the Iowa General Assembly in 1904 declared that "Iowa State College at Ames, shall act as a highway commission." The purpose was to provide a bureau of information. The first main work was to make a study of the "road problem in Iowa."

The commissioners were asked to:

  • Design highway plans.
  • Conduct highway construction demonstrations.
  • Send information to county supervisors.
  • Keep a record of all important operations.

For nine years the highway commission remained part of Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) in Ames. But in 1913 it separated from the college. The commission was given control over all county and township road officials. Many years later, in 1975 the Iowa State Highway Commission became the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Tourist Road Routes

In 1913 the Iowa General Assembly provided for the registration of tourist routes. The act permitted volunteer organizations to sponsor certain roads and register them. The sponsors chose the design and color of the roadside markers. They also chose the wording of their particular road slogans.

The River-to-River Road from Davenport to Council Bluffs was the first tourist road route in the state. At one time there were more than 100 of these tourist road routes in the state. These were replaced with highway numbers in 1926.

Iowa’s First Mile of Concrete Highway

In 1916 the U.S. Congress set aside $75 million in federal aid for road building. The money was given to the states over a period of five years. Iowa’s share was $146,000 per year. The federal aid had to be matched dollar for dollar by the state.

In 1917 northern Iowa received the first of these federal funds. The money was used to construct four and a half miles of a 16-foot wide concrete section of road between Mason City and Clear Lake, near what is now U.S. 18.

New Safety Rules

In 1904 the speed limit in the business sections of Iowa towns was "not to exceed one mile in six minutes." In the outer limits of towns the rate was "one mile in four minutes." In the country speed was limited to "20 miles per hour." In 1911 the speed limit was left up to the driver with a warning to use "care and prudence." The maximum speed was set at 25 miles per hour. The same year the age limit of drivers was set at 15 years.

Good brakes, a horn and lamp were required on all motor vehicles. Drivers were required to stop to allow teams of horses to pass. They were also required to assist by leading the horses past the motor vehicles.

Laws were passed in 1921 to reduce the glare from vehicle headlights. Plain lenses were banned. Many people painted a portion of the plain glass headlights to cut down on the glare. Some motorists used froth from foaming beer, smearing it over the glass and allowing it to dry.

Billboards and advertising signs were banned from along state highways in 1924. Officials said they distracted motorists. In 1965 the states obeyed laws passed by the U.S. Congress for making the interstate highways more beautiful. In Iowa it was against the law to put up advertising signs visible from interstate.

Before 1925 a person traveling across the United States by car could become very confused. Some of the major routes across the country changed names from state to state. So in 1925 the U.S. Congress approved a national road numbering plan.

The work of renumbering and remarking the U.S. routes was completed in 1926. Highways were numbered with even numbers running east and west. Odd numbers ran north and south. The standard federal marker was a U.S. shield bearing the name of the state and the road number. The familiar black and white shields have guided American motorists ever since.

Another safety feature was added to Iowa roads in 1926. To help drivers stay on the right side of the road, a black line was painted down the center of every paved road. It helped drivers avoid head-on collisions. In 1954 the continuous black center line was replaced with a dashed, white line that reflected lights. The yellow no-passing lines were added to all heavily traveled roads. In 1959 Iowa became the first state to put up "no passing" signs.

Iowa’s Primary Numbering System

In 1926, after the U.S. route numbering system was established, Iowa set up its own numbering system for primary roads. The intent was to establish a system that did not duplicate the federal route numbers.

A standard symbol, a black-and-white circular sign with the word “Iowa” on the top and road number on the bottom two-thirds, was adopted. Each main traveled road was given a specific number. That number was painted on telegraph poles or specially built poles at intersections, corners and crossroads. This system replaced the registered route markings and names of the tourist road routes.

Primary and Secondary Roads

In 1924 the Iowa legislature passed a law that required the Highway Commission to maintain the primary roads in the state. Before this time, the county board of supervisors was in charge of road maintenance.

The Primary Road Act of 1927 divided Iowa roads into two systems—primary and secondary. The primary roads included those main market roads that connected all county seat towns, cities and main market centers. Secondary roads were all public highways except primary roads, state roads and highways within cities and towns.

Motor Vehicle Regulation

A special session of the Iowa General Assembly held in 1929 gave authority to the Highway Commission to set traffic rules governing the use of motor vehicles on the primary roads. One rule the Commission was in charge of was weight limits. The Commission set the weight limits and could change the rules according to the season.

In 1931 the Secretary of State was given the responsibility of issuing Iowa driver licenses. In 1938 the Iowa Legislature shifted that duty to the Iowa Highway Patrol. In 1975 the legislature again shifted responsibility, this time to the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Highway Safety Patrol

Convinced something had to be done about highway safety, Ola Babcock, a popular Iowa secretary of state, did something for which she had no authority. She created a highway patrol. In 1934 she converted a group of 15 motor vehicle inspectors on her payroll into an organization to combat “Road Hogs, Drunken Drivers, Excessive Speeders and Unsafe Cars.” Since there were no funds available, officers furnished their own uniforms.

John Hattery of Nevada was the first patrol chief. He was paid $200 per month and was required to work 72 hours per week. In 1939 the legislature transferred the patrol from the Secretary of State’s office to a new Public Safety Department.

Cars made life more convenient for many Iowans. But with the increase of traffic, the need for new laws became apparent. Also, the need for improved roads emerged. As a result, new laws were passed. A new government agency was created to deal with issues related to cars, drivers and roads. Many of the new rules and regulations that were enacted in the early 1900s are still in effect.


  • Iowa Department of Transportation. Approaching the Turn of the Century​: Discovering Historic Iowa Transportation Milestones. Ames, Iowa: February 1999.