When I hear police cautioning people to lock their cars, I think of 1970, when South Dakota legislators fought over a law from the previous year that created a penalty for motorists who left their keys in running, unoccupied vehicles.
The key removal law passed in 1969, while I was writing sports in Sioux Falls. I moved to Pierre and began a career as a news reporter covering state government, politics and the Legislature. I confess I paid no attention to legislative doings before that, not even the key law. I wasn’t so different from nearly every legislator who voted on the take-your-keys-out bill in 1969. They didn’t know that provision was in the uniform law they passed.
When the weather turned cold the next fall and winter, when people began leaving their cars and station wagons running to warm the vehicles up while they popped into the post office or the drug store, and when police began issuing tickets for keys in cars, well, that’s when most people became aware of the new law. And that’s when a lot of legislators became aware, too, alerted by angry phone calls and letters from their constituents.
As I recall, the key law passed as a tiny piece of a package of legislation adopting uniform rules of the road or some such thing. Back in the early days of my legislative coverage, each session brought several “uniform law’’ bills. Those were pieces of legislation written by one advocacy group or another in the interest of public safety and sent to legislatures across the country. The goal was to have each state’s laws be the same on whatever topic was involved.
On the one hand, that made a lot of sense. It’s nice to go from one state to another and know the laws are the same. On the other hand, sometimes a law that makes sense in one state doesn’t make as much sense in another. Or, maybe the law makes sense but doesn’t stand a chance of passing in a particular state.
I recall, for example, times when highway safety groups tried to get South Dakota to raise the driving age to 16 or 17. Young people would be older and presumably more careful when they began to drive, advocates said. Well, sure, but try selling that one in South Dakota. We seem to be fine with 14-year-olds driving.
Back to rules of the road. It makes sense not to leave keys in a running vehicle, but back in 1970, people didn’t like being told that. I think the uniform law received only one “no’’ vote in the state House of Representatives. That was from Dexter Gunderson, of Irene, the way I remember it. He apparently didn’t say anything about it during debate on the rules of the road package, but after the controversy arose, he said that no-key provision was why he voted against the package. If so, he was ahead of the pack. Legislators repealed the controversial provision in 1970.
That same session Gunderson was involved in one of the most unusual legislative events I witnessed during 40 years of covering the Capitol. He was speaker of the House in 1969 and 1970, so he controlled the daily calendar of bills for debate. In those days there wasn’t much of a system to track bills, and committee leaders or presiding officers could “lose’’ legislation they didn’t like. That happened to a bill by a Hill City senator named Frank Henderson.
He managed to get a controversial bill — dove hunting, maybe, or abolishing Game, Fish and Parks — through the Senate and past a House committee. Somehow the bill disappeared after that. On the last evening for bills to pass or die, Henderson burst through the doors to the House, strode to the speaker’s platform, grabbed Gunderson by the lapels and demanded, “Where’s my bill?’’
Gunderson said, “Let me look,’’ or something like that. He brushed off his lapels, left the chamber, went to his office and returned with Henderson’s bill. Onto the calendar it went. The House killed it. I thought that might infuriate Henderson, but he just wanted a vote in public. He got it. And, unlike the rules of the road bill in 1969, legislators knew what they were voting on.