“(Auto)mobility, Accidents, and Danger”


“(Auto)mobility, Accidents, and Danger,” Technology and Culture

            The format of this issue is different in that it starts out with the presentation of a simplistic framework proposed by Peter Norton, and the articles that follow employ that framework and the questions it urges, showing how it does and does not fit into much more nuanced and localized studies of traffic safety. The intellectual outlook is different than what we havefo looked at so far because it analyzes the culture and infrastructure a technology requires; cars would be far less useful and abundant if roads were not built for automotive traffic and laws were not created to regulate its uses and abuses. For the car to be fully accepted into a society, that society must make manifest their approval of it by constructing more than just a culture to surround it — rules, regulations, and infrastructure are all required. By delving into this complicated process, the contributors to this issue have tried to tease apart how and why these cultural and infrastructural pillars were built, and how popular and institutional understandings of the safety or danger of the technology in question have factored into these decisions.

One of the most interesting aspects I found highlighted in a few of the articles was the role that class played in the regulation of roads, cars, and drivers, and thus the socio-cultural acceptance of a technology. Particularly at the beginning of the automobile’s career (Norton’s phase 1 and 2), it was very much a part of male, elite culture — a culture that had and used institutional privilege to hasten the car’s takeover of roads, a public space. While the automobile’s reputation as an inherently dangerous machine prompted hesitancy early on (in the form of lower speed limits and licensure), as Donald Weber’s case in Belgium shows, powerful members of automobile clubs were able to paint a new image of the danger of cars by framing statistical analyses of the issue in a way that would, “shift attention away from motorized traffic and have other means of transportation share the blame.” (402) Lobbyists also used their political clout to push forward punitive safety regulations at the expense of preventative ones. By delegating blame to the driver or the pedestrian — and not the car itself — these men secured its dominion over public roads, even though only 2.5% of Belgians owned a car by 1930. Obviously, the acceptance of the car was not as simple as it being viewed a utilitarian machine capable of improving everyone’s lives. The decisions regarding its cultural and infrastructural inroads into societies, if the case of Belgium is an indicator of more ubiquitous trends, was largely in the hands of the wealthy and powerful. I don’t want to get political here, but arguments against gun control in modern-day America contain eerily similar rhetoric and logical fallacy.

The latter half of the issue is largely concerned with how traffic safety policy changed after auto supremacy had been established. Through the framework of Norton’s paradigms, Stève Bernardin and Jameson Wetmore explore the United States’s second and third phases; the second was largely backed by “grassroots” movements instigated and maintained by “motordom” members and safety experts, while the third was a product of government intervention. I was particularly interested in XXX’s piece on automobility in Africa; its discussion of what the Peugeot 404 meant to Africans reminded me of Rieger’s arguments in The People’s Car. Just as Germans had seen an industrial, successful Germany in the Volkswagon Beetle, so Africans saw in the 404 “the speed of Africanization that could remake the colonized subject in the new imaginary of the sovereign African state.” (471) Fancy new (to the user, anyway) artifacts, it seems, often take on whatever “modernity” means to their users. I wonder what the almost ubiquitous link between technology and modernity says about people, and what instances in which this isn’t the case (like the movie Ex Machina, where a rogue technology ends up being a serious problem) say as well.

The primary question I think this issue gets at is: how do we deal with the adverse effects of a pervasive technology? And, more specifically, how can we answer that question when humans have to be factored in as the operators of that technology? In the case of traffic safety, that question has been answered by playing what Claes Tingvall termed the “blame game” in his contribution. When an accident occurs, who is at fault? The machine, the operator, the victim, or the infrastructure? Depending on to whom, where, and when this question was asked, different answers were proposed. How these answers were constructed, argued, and made into concrete changes (be they technical, cultural, or infrastructural) can tell us a lot about latent divisions in a society and about their beliefs about technology, its risks, and its role in their world. I think technologies with infrastructural dimensions like the car give historians a unique opportunity to look at something that has its tendrils in many different areas of life, belief, and culture; this issue proved that through the varied conclusions its contributors were able to draw by employing Norton’s framework and answering the questions he posed.



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