The Reason U.S. Presidents Aren't Allowed to Drive Cars

This isn't supposed to happen.
This isn't supposed to happen. / Scott Olson/GettyImages

When Vice President Joe Biden spoke to Car and Driver in 2011 about his love of cars, it led to him admitting to the one thing he truly disliked about holding the office: being prohibited from operating a motor vehicle.

It’s “the one thing I hate about this job,” he said.

President or vice president, current or former: it doesn’t matter. None is allowed to drive a car on a public road.

The policy is enforced by the Secret Service, the government security arm tasked with the safety of those holding the highest public offices in the country. If a president wants to motor around, they have to do it as a passenger while an agent trained in evasive maneuvers is behind the steering wheel. (U.S. House and Senate members are generally subject to this policy as well.)

That’s not to say a president can never, ever drive. They would just have to do it on private property, something Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush took advantage of following their time in office: both got into cars on their respective ranches. Others might climb into a golf cart, which is generally permissible.

In 2012, Barack Obama said he unnerved agents when he climbed into a Chevy Volt and coasted around the White House. Agents closed the gates so he wouldn’t drive into the public streets of Washington.

“That was my big joy ride,” he said. “Three times around the South Lawn driveway. It was wild.”

Speaking with The Seattle Times, presidential historian and University of Texas professor H.W. Brands believes Lyndon Johnson was the last president to go for a drive on public lanes. The rule become non-negotiable after the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, who was shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas.

Somehow, Johnson managed to evade the policy. In 1964, he was reportedly going between 75 and 85 mph near his home in Texas. At one point, his driving even forced a pedestrian vehicle off the road. That he distanced himself from Secret Service protection rankled the press, which—like the country—was still reeling from Kennedy’s death.

Johnson wasn't the only president with a less-than-stellar track record on roads. Dwight D. Eisenhower once came under fire for going 90 mph en route to his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; Herbert Hoover was annoyed by the press for reporting he was speeding. In 1953, then-Vice President Richard Nixon got lost driving to a golf game in New Jersey.

Sometimes, presidents find that driving can become a matter of international diplomacy. Bill Clinton, who served from 1993 to 2001, was in Jordan when King Hussein invited him to test out a Mercedes. Fortunately, Clinton didn’t have to appear rude in declining: The car was a manual transmission, which he didn’t know how to operate.