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  • Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States by Lee Vinsel
  • Stephen T. Casper

State Regulation, Technology, Environment, Risk, Injury

Lee Vinsel. Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. 424 pp.

Academic scholarship on the automobile and the city has been on the road since at least Kenneth T. Jackson's publication of Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States in 1985. Historians Eric Avila, Shane Hamilton, E. C. Relph, and Kevin M. Kruse are among many authors who have contemplated the relationship between our cars and our cultures. While these historians and others have often focused on important, dominant preoccupations in cultural studies (suburbanization, race and ethnicity, and gender and masculinity), most of their studies have also spoken to the relationship between our health and driving. From air pollution to auto [End Page 358] crashes, drive-in diners and road rage - the impact of the car on our bodies, minds, and environments has been enormous and enduring.

Lee Vinsel's Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States adds in substantial ways to this literature. Eminently readable and highly original, Vinsel offers an exposition that describes how the development of the car and regulations governing cars co-produced them as objects of innovation and objects of liberal technologies of governance. Vinsel's sources are extensive and include archival manuscripts, personal papers, collections, periodicals, government documents, engineering reports, as well as published sources.

Vinsel argues that we must change how we understand the regulatory state, insisting that we must see it as a producer of both innovation and sometimes quite necessary standardization. He suggests as well that it is important to view technological change and regulation within specific times across the last century. Thus his story begins with the development of the car and the development of uniform regulation. It continues with the mainstreaming of the automobile as a consumer product and the consequences this had for the development of safety features and emission standards. It ends by looking at the contemporary legal culture that brought fuel economy standards and deregulation.

While contemporary preferences in political culture aim away from appreciating these past benefits of regulatory politics, Vinsel makes a compelling case that not only are regulations essential, they have also proved beneficial to health, safety, the environment, free market competition, and production of material comforts. Cars are healthier, safer, and cleaner, and most car companies have survived, adapted, and co-produced the conditions that have made this a contemporary fact. Against, then, the namby-pamby complaining about a Leviathan State that undergirds the techno-utopian logic of Silicon Valley libertarianism, Vinsel asserts that boring, steady, seemingly statist proceduralism probably ends up prompting progress and free markets better than the absence of regulations. It turns out, as the saying goes, there really is freedom in limitations.

Vinsel's book, although a study in the history of technology, is very much in the spirit of the social history of medicine and social medicine. His regulatory subjects dwell on health and wellness in and produced by cars, and they use biomechanical research and trauma impact studies to understand bodily injuries through crash-testing. The law applied to car crashes and consumer protection is a steady theme. At the same time, Vinsel's analysis of the relationship between fuel standards and air emissions also helps us continue to be mindful that one of the reasons clean air was necessary was the presence of respiratory disease, especially in regions like Los Angeles where mountains, low land, and a sea-facing city meant that the pollutants of cars had public health import. He asks in his conclusion what it might mean for health and consumerism to embrace more radical ideas, as for instance, a post-automobile landscape. These topics add richness to otherwise more arid stories of legislative maneuvers or the outcome of litigation, and framed in terms of health, [End Page 359] bodily safety and environmental impact, Vinsel manages to take those dry topics and turn them into an astonishing tour deforce filled with humor, vignette, and irony.

In sum, Vinsel's study is a timely, elegant...


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