- Mobility without Mayhem: Safety, Cars, and Citizenship
Jeremy Packer’s well-written and thought-provoking book examines the influence of automotive-related safety risks and prescriptive ideals of “good” driving from 1945 to the present. He argues that while auto accidents and other social risks associated with mass mobility—such as crime, sexual violence, and juvenile delinquency—compelled Americans to turn a worried eye toward their roadways, the solutions they enacted willfully ceded the very freedoms that justified automobility. Packer traces the path to today’s all-encompassing safety ideology—where safety is equated to civic morality—by showing how “good” driving soon vilified many women, the young or adventuresome, motorcyclists, and racial minorities, when compared to the more “disciplined mobility” of ruling elites (pp. 8–9). In short, the social mayhem spawned by individual mobility allowed for more restrictive governance.
Packer’s text deconstructs and contextualizes the ways that safety advocates profiled the devious motor menace. As a scholar of communications, he focuses on the discursive powers of the “interested parties” which gained the most influence: the auto and insurance industries, social scientists, the media, and especially state and federal governments (p. 12). While these [End Page 240] voices can often drown out those of motorists, just as the hypotheses of Michel Foucault, Mary Douglas, or neoliberalism can bind the reader’s imagination, Packer’s broader analysis is sustained by a deft blend of case studies and theory and an agreeable prose style.
The book is, in essence, divided in two. The first half examines the threats allegedly posed by newly mobile women and young adults, motorcyclists, and hitchhikers. Hitchhiking best exemplifies Packer’s argument. Once a positive act representing sociability, exploration, and civic good will, hitchhiking was transformed and criminalized by conjuring popular fears of rapists and deranged killers. Packer traces these assumptions from the highway to society and shows how they effectively killed “the roving form of community” that gave universal mobility its greatest appeal (p. 110). The second half of the text shifts away from the roadway and toward the communication and construction of power that animates collective safety. Here, Packer analyzes civil disobedience, racial profiling, and road rage. The best section, on a leading “iconic figure of the road,” the CB wielding long-haul trucker, clearly and logically assays the unique historic, technological, and cultural imprint of the times (p. 20).While racism and road rage were not confined to recent decades, as the text may lead some to conclude, the cultural moment of the CB craze, including the gospels of Smokey and the Bandit and C. W. McCall’s hit song “Convoy,” clearly evoke the 1970s.
CBs offered truckers and a faddish public direct access to safety officials (which was “good”), but they also proved vexing to officials charged with maintaining mobilized order (one patrolman lamented, “I couldn’t get in a cruiser without every truck driver within 40 miles knowing where I am” [p. 173]). In Packer’s hands, these case studies ably demonstrate how cultural power redefines the use of technologies, especially those offering individual freedom and which prevent “govern[ing] at a distance” (p. 162).
My concerns with Packer’s analysis center on the paths he chose not to follow rather than those he did. While he overstates that “virtually no history exists regarding the American driver or the driving public,” Packer’s analysis passes too quickly past their perceived freedoms (p. 7). Drivers, as he notes, likened these liberties to “inalienable rights and struggles for social equality,” but their push back against the forces controlling technology is underreported (p. 28). More precision about the exact nature of mobile risks, where they occurred, in what number, and to/by what populations, would have helped to counter the “counterstatistical gerrymandering” that safety officials employed (p. 49). These omissions muddy the exact role played by automobility in the safety dynamic. Was it an essential component in the founding of our risk society or merely the most visible public arena where citizens were made aware of new...