Archives of Hidden History: “Safety” Efforts

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.

Click on this image to see what DbC means:

Highway_Highlights-Nov-1947

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.”

The People’s Front

higway_user [Click image for larger view in pdf format.]

This is one of my early favorites from my dig into the history of capitalist dictation of transportation policy in the United States. As we at DbC know, the general public has never been seriously included in the making of said policy, except on the margins and after the main choices have been made. Certainly, there has not been a rich, sustained debate and menu of choices offered to ordinary citizens in the area.

The exhibit at left speaks rather clearly to what has instead happened. The image is a flyer issued in October 1947 by the National Highway Users Conference via its Highway Highlights trade magazine. The National Highway Users Conference was, of course, not in the least an authentic organization of actual highway users. On the contrary, it was one of the several front groups set up by the core corporate capitalists of the automotive-industrial complex. Indeed, guess who was President of the NHUC as of October 1947? The highway-user-in-chief just then happened to be one Alfred P. Sloan!

The humor and scandal in this flyer is the obvious falseness it reveals about the NHUC. On one hand, the purpose of the leaflet is to convince ordinary schmoes that “you and everybody else are highway users.” Meanwhile, not only is it patently absurd for a supposedly democratic, purportedly bottom-up advocacy group to have to tell its own alleged members that they fit into the group in question, but the flyer itself proceeds to acknowledge that the NHUC is composed not of individual citizens, but “organizations and companies which recognize [the] truth” that it’s either cars-first transportation or barbarism.

Such shameless, self-interested demagogy has always been the real engine of the “car culture” that thinkers across the political spectrum — without ever bothering to look at the actual evidence — have attributed to the spontaneous wishes and “national character” of the American masses.

It’s enough to make a cat laugh.