My book manuscript, Taming the American Idol: Cars, Risks, and Regulations, examines how individuals, organizations, and governments have regulated risks associated with the automobile over that technology’s entire history in the United States, from 1893 to the present.
Americans have always had an ambivalent relationship with the car. On the one hand, they seem to worship this technology. For instance, a popular dictum holds that a society’s central values (or at least the values of its elites) are reflected in its largest structures. Early civilizations built temples and pyramids for religious reasons; modern States build monuments to glorify their form of government; and capitalists erect skyscrapers as conspicuous icons of their wealth, power, and modernity. Yet, the system of interconnected roadways is the largest structure in contemporary industrial societies. That is, their grandest altar seems to be dedicated to a mode of transportation. The lion’s share of laws and policies dealing with automobiles in the United States have been aimed at making them easier to use and fostering their adoption. Governments built roads, subsidized fuel and other costs, and restructured public space around the car. On the other hand, people have always been aware of the automobile’s risks. Car crashes mangled bodies; emissions systems spewed noxious fumes; and large vehicles “guzzled” precious natural resources. Cyclists, urbanists, pedestrians, environmentalists, and consumer advocates resented and resisted the hazards that attended these technologies. Like many idols, the automobile brought bad as well as good, and if Americans built a giant altar for their idol, they also searched for ways to tame it.