- Hell on Wheels: The Promise and Peril of America's Car Culture, 1900–1940
Cultural historian David Blanke observes that "between 1899 and 2003, nearly 3.2 million Americans died as a result of auto accidents" (p. 3). And yet their petro-powered peregrinations persist. In Hell on Wheels Blanke seeks to understand the incongruity between Americans' early "love affair" with the automobile and the horrific death toll that followed in its wake. He explores how Americans understood and negotiated this mobility-versus-morbidity puzzle over the first four decades of the twentieth century and finds that "the combination of these two forces—the love affair and auto accidents—influenced reformers and average citizens alike" as they struggled to mitigate the risk and increase at least the perception of personal safety (p. 3). All so they could keep driving.
Historians of technology might see in Blanke's study an Ellulian knot of good and bad bound up inextricably in a new technology. As one of Blanke's sources put it in 1931, "The best we can expect of our most valiant efforts . . . is to hold the killings down to an irreducible number. The trouble lies . . . in the fundamental incompatibility of machines and man, steel and flesh. . . . Nothing on earth can make their intimacy safe" (p. 94). Blanke argues that his subjects could not resolve this tension without sacrificing the very meaning and desiderata of motoring. Readers will find a rich and interesting exploration of the debates over risk and safety as captured in the words of diverse figures including safety activists, literary authors, traffic engineers, highway engineers, automakers, legislators, educators, presidential commissions, insurance underwriters, accident victims, police officers, and more.
Blanke's middle chapters present a rich trove of this period discourse, within which he identifies voices for two divergent perspectives: those who saw auto accidents as avoidable and those who saw them as inevitable. The former held that virtually all crashes could have been prevented and thus faulted drivers, not cars. Blanke sees this view as being reinforced by a residual moral progressivism that traced social ills to weaknesses of character or birth, but which could be resolved through moral suasion and education. Criminally dangerous "motor morons" could be identified and removed from the roads while rude and ignorant "Flivverboobs" could be cured or reformed. Others, particularly road engineers, saw accidents as inevitable and set out to reduce the risk through "engineering, education, and enforcement." Blanke argues that these hardheaded rational men and their profitable infrastructure projects accomplished more in the way of reducing overall risk than did the moralists, but that the powerful attractions of [End Page 466] the automotive love affair stymied both approaches as the "freedoms of the car seemingly overrode the demands of public safety" (p. 112).
The persistent use of the love affair cliché is the most troubling part of an otherwise interesting book. Despite admitting that it is "overused and overgeneralized" by others, Blanke employs it throughout, aiming to capture the emotional appeal expressed by many early motorists by transforming the cliché into an analytical tool. His clearest definition and defense of it does not emerge until the third chapter, where he notes four characteristics of the love affair expressed by motorists: the exciting physical experience of driving; the freedom of automobility; the civic equality many felt on the open road; and pride in progressive mastery over the new technology. Yet, as he later shows, each of these characteristics is severable and variable over time. Little is gained by lumping them together and perpetuating a cliché employing one of the vaguest and most frustratingly polysemic words in the English language. One hopes that it will not be adopted by other students and scholars.
Blanke also draws on Ulrich Beck's Risk Society (1986) theory in his introduction and conclusion, and at a few points between, to try to place auto accidents, risk, and safety in a broader social-historical context. Although this represents a commendable effort to bring some...