“The automobile took over because the legal system helped squeeze out the alternatives.”


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: car-centrism, or “automobile supremacy,” as the author refers to it, not only is a form of imperialism. It’s perhaps the last remaining form of imperialism almost entirely absent social stigma.

When we get behind a wheel — all of us, including me — our assumption of acceptable behavior changes every bit as much as when we savage people on social media.

Single-family-only zoning, parking requirements, the mortgage-interest tax deduction (“the deduction primarily subsidizes large houses in car-centric areas”), prioritization of motorists’ convenience over public safety, insurance inadequacies, tort law, criminal law … the list of ways that the legal system institutionalizes this mode of imperialism is lengthy and daunting.

What’s it going to take to make improvements, or do we continue to shrug and say nothing can be done?

Americans Shouldn’t Have to Drive, but the Law Insists on It, by Gregory Shill (The Atlantic)

The automobile took over because the legal system helped squeeze out the alternatives.

 … As I detail in a forthcoming journal article, over the course of several generations lawmakers rewrote the rules of American life to conform to the interests of Big Oil, the auto barons, and the car-loving 1 percenters of the Roaring Twenties. They gave legal force to a mind-set—let’s call it automobile supremacy—that kills 40,000 Americans a year and seriously injures more than 4 million more. Include all those harmed by emissions and climate change, and the damage is even greater. As a teenager growing up in the shadow of Detroit, I had no reason to feel this was unjust, much less encouraged by law. It is both.

It’s no secret that American public policy throughout the 20th century endorsed the car—for instance, by building a massive network of urban and interstate highways at public expense. Less well understood is how the legal framework governing American life enforces dependency on the automobile. To begin with, mundane road regulations embed automobile supremacy into federal, state, and local law. But inequities in traffic regulation are only the beginning. Land-use law, criminal law, torts, insurance, vehicle safety regulations, even the tax code—all these sources of law provide rewards to cooperate with what has become the dominant transport mode, and punishment for those who defy it.

Let’s begin at the state and local levels …

Especially this.

In other words, the very fact that car crashes cause so much social damage makes it hard for those who are injured or killed by reckless drivers to receive justice.

In a similar spirit, criminal law has carved out a lesser category uniquely for vehicular manslaughter. Deep down, all of us who drive are afraid of accidentally killing someone and going to jail; this lesser charge was originally envisioned to persuade juries to convict reckless drivers. Yet this accommodation reflects a pattern. Even when a motorist kills someone and is found to have been violating the law while doing so (for example, by running a red light), criminal charges are rarely brought and judges go light. So often do police officers in New York fail to enforce road-safety rules—and illegally park their own vehicles on sidewalks and bike facilities—that specific Twitter accounts are dedicated to each type of misbehavior. Given New York’s lax enforcement record, the Freakonomics podcast described running over pedestrians there as “the perfect crime.”

And the conclusion.

Americans customarily describe motor-vehicle crashes as accidents. But the harms that come to so many of our loved ones are the predictable output of a broken system of laws. No struggle for justice in America has been successful without changing the law. The struggle against automobile supremacy is no different.