Cars are among our most ubiquitous technologies; one could say that the cultural lore of the postwar United States is written in tire marks. But as much as they have been a vehicle for liberation and expression, historian Lee Vinsel
argues that automobiles have been shaped by government regulation through and through.
In Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States
(Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), Vinsel combats the free market doctrine that auto regulation is fundamentally opposed to innovation. In part, he does this by historicizing the animus against regulation and the “innovation speak” that emerged in its wake. But the book itself makes a compelling argument for how the automobile has always been perceived by voluntary associations and governing bodies as a risk in need of taming. These shifting perceptions formed the basis for infrastructures that made the car into a more dependable, safer, and cleaner technology. Vinsel’s engaging narrative provides a model for studying technology and governance in the postwar U.S. in which policy instruments, built environments, and constructions of the human subject all share the road.
Mikey McGovern is a PhD candidate in Princeton University’s Program in the History of Science. He is writing a dissertation on how people used discrimination statistics to argue about rights in 1970s America, and what this means for histories of bureaucracy, quantification, law, politics, and race.