I Could Not Travel Both: Automotive Risk, Safety Reform, and the American Love Affair

Saturday, January 9, 2010: 3:10 PM
Santa Rosa Room (Marriott)
David P. Blanke , Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi, TX
In Hell on Wheels: The Promise and Peril of America’s Car Culture, 1900-1940 (2007), I argue that drivers’ justified the growing risks of mass automobility by endorsing and vigorously defending the personal freedoms (both real and perceived) afforded by the car. While the nation’s early response to the growing accident crisis – in the form of improved education, engineering, and law enforcement – addressed many of the structural problems inherent in a mobile society, it did little to affect the personal values and biases formed by millions of drivers over millions of miles. This paper will define and examine these values and biases (which, collectively, formed what I refer to as the American “automotive love affair”), will show how they were used by both advocates and critics of the car, and will show how these perceptions of risk and reward changed over the twentieth century. The central value of this approach and this paper is in how is can expand scholars’ appreciation for the ways that driving culture shaped the adoption of this vital technology. By critically defining and assessing the automotive love affair, and by using the language of drivers and enforcement officials, historians are better able to assess the efficacy and limits of structural reforms that sought to improve the roads, the cars, the laws, and the drivers of a fully mobile society. Time permitting, the paper will connect this analysis of automotive risk to the growing public awareness of other forms of modern risk. Using Ulrich Beck’s influential Risk Society as a guide, the paper considers the noticeable shift in automotive regulation and reform that now privileges collective safety rather than individual freedom.
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