During the mid-1960s into the 1970s, there were so many kids going around barefoot that of course the question of the legality of barefoot driving came up. And when we point out today that that it is legal in all 50 states, we’ll sometimes get someone saying, “Well, it may be legal now, but it used to be illegal.
And you sure could get arrested for and convicted of it.
There were plenty of newspaper articles that addressed the legality of barefoot driving. For instance, this appeared in April of 1968, in a column by Dave Felt.
Barefoot Driving Legal in All 50 States
Our children are old enough to be told, if they have not already read in the public prints, that it is legal in all 50 states for a barefoot person to drive an automobile.
We had insisted, when they were teenagers, that they wear shoes with sturdy soles and no flapping parts when they drove the family chariot.
We argued that a bare foot was vulnerable to heat and to sharp metal parts, so that it might not function properly on the brake pedal in time of need.
But in Denver the other day the Colorado state driver examination department ruled that it is O.K. for a driver’s license applicant to take the driving portion of the examination barefoot.
The state agency held that barefoot driving is safe because the nerve ends are “more alert” when the foot is bare.
Moreover, the agency noted, the soles of shoes may “catch or stick” under the brake pedal, or extend to depress unintentionally the accelerator pedal.
Sorry, Kids; we meant well.
That looks pretty definitive. And I like that explanation that the nerve ends are more alert. So how would someone get arrested and convicted?
Well, what did Ann Landers say?
Dear Ann Landers: My husband and I have a running argument every summer. I would like to get it settled once and for all during the winter when we can both be more objective.
We live in the suburbs and I do a lot of driving. During the summer I find it easier to drive barefoot. My husband says this is not only dangerous, but illegal. Yes or no? — BAREFOOT CONTESSA
Dear Contessa: The laws vary according to the state. In Illinois it is not illegal to drive barefooted. While the motor vehicle department does not recommend barefoot driving a spokesman said both men and women often remove their shoes on long trips. He added this word of caution: “If you want to take off your shoes, take off your stockings also. Nylon is slippery and your foot could easily slide off the brake.”
That was also from 1968. Unsurprisingly, good old Ann always said more than she really knew. Yes, it was legal in Illinois, but where’d she get the idea that the law varied by state? Didn’t Dave Felt just tell us it was legal in all 50 of them? But in this case, the state spokesman just had to say something negative (but doesn’t say why).
While Ann limited herself to Illinois, there were a bunch of other state-specific articles that appeared at the time, like this one from 1976.
Los Angeles (UPI) — It’s okay to drive barefoot in California. In fact, the California Highway Patrol says a bare foot has more traction on pedals than a shod one, making for quicker stops in emergencies.
Oh, I like that. (I do wonder, though, if they tried it.) “Traction” seems like an odd choice to pick for a benefit of driving barefoot.)
Here’s one from Texas, in 1972, to one of their question-and-answer newspaper features.
Q: I see a lot of people, especially young people, driving cars around town barefooted. Is it proper to drive without shoes, or is it against the law. Can you get a driver’s license if you take the driving test barefooted?
A: It is not against the law for a barefooted person to operate a motor vehicle, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Nice and simple. And definitive.
And how about this one, from Wisconsin in 1971?
Q: Is it illegal to drive barefooted? If not, why is it so many people believe it is?
A: No. Wisconsin law does not prohibit driving while barefooted. It is possible that motorists suspect that something is wrong with barefoot driving simply because they are not accustomed to it. Each motorist acquires a “feel” of his car, and since most drivers are used to footwear when using the accelerator, brake or clutch, barefoot driving might cause an uncomfortable sensation just because of the change. Pressure applied to the foot pedals becomes more pronounced, the driver is not used to it and possible feels less secure with his car. Some drivers fell that it could be unsafe if the change from their normal driving habits results in a loss of confidence behind the wheel.
That one is interesting because it tries to answer why it is that so many people believed it was illegal. It also lets us see that the myth was just as strong back then as it is today.
Ohio was also heard from, in 1970:
Q: Is there a law against driving while barefoot?
A: For all you back-to-nature lovers, Lt. G. D. Yarger of the State Highway Patrol says there is no law against driving a car while barefoot.
That was nice. It also obviously predates the time when Ohio’s official position was that it was legal “but not recommended”.
But it wasn’t all fun and games. Here is something that appeared in a lot of newspapers (it was well-syndicated) in 1976.
Safety experts at F. W. Woolworth say that driving in shoes with a platform sole higher that one inch is dangerous to life and limb — yours and others — because it can catch under the accelerator or brake pedal. Backless clogs or sandals that slip off the foot are also hazardous and so is driving barefoot. Unsupported toes don’t have enough strength to operate pedals. Best bet for driving is a shoe with a flat flexible sole.
Unsupported toes? We’ve all heard the myths about how the arch supposedly needs support, but the toes do, too? That is of course ridiculous.
I really, really wonder if the people giving this advice ever really tested it, or tried it out themselves. Toes are plenty strong to operate pedals. However, and again this is another reason I don’t think they tried it, accelerators are long and flat, so the toes don’t get involved. And even though the brake pedal is short, the part of the foot that uses it is the part near the ball of the foot and the toes don’t get involved at all.
One really wonders just what qualified those morons as “safety experts”.
OK, it’s legal in all 50 states. So, how does one get arrested and convicted of driving barefoot? I have to say that I’ve heard anecdotes about this before, so it was interesting to find a newspaper article that actually documented it. This is from Massachusetts (where else?) in 1974, in the town of Lee, which is in the Berkshires near the New York border.
David F. Johnson, 18, of 303 East Center St., Lee, pleaded no contest Aug. 1 to a charge of impeded operation of a motor vehicle. Judge Dwyer filed the pleading against Johnson, who was charged after police discovered he was driving a motor vehicle while barefoot.
I also note that he pled “no contest”, which means that while he did not plead guilty, he did admit that he was driving barefoot, and then the judge decided the case.
Well, hell, if you’re not going to put up any defense and make the state prove its case, no wonder why you’ll get convicted. (And that’s how I suspect any other convictions occurred.) How about make the state prove that driving barefooted impedes the operation of the vehicle?
By the way, we can look up just what “impeded driving” means in Massachusetts. It’s in Chapter 90, Section 13 of their statutes:
No person, when operating a motor vehicle, shall permit to be on or in the vehicle or on or about his person anything which may interfere with or impede the proper operation of the vehicle or any equipment by which the vehicle is operator or controlled, except that a person may operate a motor vehicle while using a federally licensed 2-way radio or mobile telephone, except as provided in sections 8M, 12A and 13B, as long as 1 hand remains on the steering wheel at all times.
He was convicted of that? It requires having something in the vehicle that impedes the operation. In this case, he didn’t have shoes. How can not having something get you convicted of having something?
(I supposed it is possible that he’d taken his shoes off and they were sitting where they interfered with the pedals, but that is not what the story said.)
But I guess we can see how the myths start.
Let me cleanse our palates with two mores newspaper responses to the question of whether barefoot driving was legal.
First, this from a West Virginia paper in 1968:
Q: Is it against the law to drive a car barefooted?
A: Not unless it’s a stolen car.
And finally, also from 1968,
No state has a law against operating a motor vehicle while barefooted. This includes Hawaii, where it is illegal to do anything with your shoes on.
That’s the spirit.