From the outset, the corporate capitalist automotive-industrial complex has both generated and benefited from one the greatest floods of propaganda in human history. Buried under countless PR operations and relentless incantations about how “Americans are having a love affair with the car,” the actual history of the making of cars-first transportation in the United States has long since been ignored and forgotten, even by the would-be critics. Fortunately, fragments of this real history still exist, if you know where to look.
Today’s example is a reminder of the actual history of car capitalists’ efforts in the area of “safety,” or, more accurately, danger management.
By its nature, cars-first transportation is massively, needlessly dangerous. The death toll from car collisions alone (i.e., not counting those resulting from pollution, bodily deconditioning, and oil wars) has been somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 million in the United States alone over the past century. Many times that number have been injured in crashes.
Q: Until the popular uprisings of the 1960s, what was the auto-industrial complex’s main response to the fact that their product is a severe public health menace?
A: To harangue drivers about the importance of “courtesy” on the road.
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This is the lead article from the November 1947 edition of Highway Highlights, the magazine of the National Highway Users Conference, a front group designed to cloak the automotive-industrial complex’s lobbying efforts in the mantle of ordinary automobile users, as DbC explained recently here.
At about this same time, the NHUC was forming its “Motor Manners Project,” through which it aimed to ensure that the thesis “driver and pedestrian behavior is a key factor in [automotive] accidents” would be the leading point of concern in safety debates. Part of this Project was retention of none other than Emily Post to write and promote Motor Manners, a booklet devoted to the MMP’s theme that “impolite driving” was the root cause of the nation’s automotive death toll. Motor Manners was, of course, “distributed free to individual motorists.”
As you can see in the linked piece above, such was the NHUC’s chutzpah that it not only made the effort to transfer blame for the inherent danger of their product to drivers, but also to passengers. “The right kind of backseat driver,” it preached, “may be able to cut the nation’s traffic toll….Perhaps in many of these cases [of careless or speeding drivers] the passengers could have saved their lives if they had been willing to speak up and remonstrate with the driver.”
The following month, Highway Highlights published a follow-up piece, in which it endorsed the precedent set by Maryland Circuit Court judge Stephen R. Collins, who had ruled — perhaps after having read something distributed by the NHUC itself — that “the degree of care and vigilance which the guest is required to exercise for his own protection is not different from that required of the driver.”
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