The idea that cars = freedom is a pervasive American myth. The truth is that the rise of the automobile — and rampant illegal behaviors that have always accompanied it — helped give rise to an armed street security force that too often acts as judge, jury, and executioner.
Sarah Seo’s book, Policing the Open Road (2019, Harvard University Press), is a cultural history of how we arrived at the system we have today, told through the lens of jurisprudence and law enforcement. It’s about how governments scrambled to regulate the automobile revolution, about the overwhelming volume of laws they created, the need to make them uniform, and how the process of creating the rules of the road, and enforcing them, transformed America’s concept of privacy and freedom.
Take, for example, driving on the right side of the road. After being ticketed by a state trooper for driving on the wrong side, a man hired a lawyer who argued that there was no “wrong” side, that the law merely stated that you had to pull to the right when you met an oncoming car. That man had his day in court and won. It seems that proto-advisory shoulders were the law of the land in early 20th-century Iowa.[Read more…]