Cars Turned Everyone Into Lawbreakers

And we’re still paying the price for that.

There’s a really interesting article about the effects of the automobile on policing and law enforcement (read the whole thing). For me, this was the key part (boldface mine):

Contrary to what one might expect, though, the social and legal developments that made the systematic policing of minorities possible did not originate with an intention to do so.

Instead, the shift began with the mass production of the automobile and the immediate imperative to regulate the motoring public. Before cars, U.S. police had more in common with their eighteenth-century forebears than with their twentieth-century successors. What revolutionized policing was a technological innovation that would come to define the new century. In the span of a century, towns and cities throughout the country—and not just in metropolitan centers—expanded their forces and professionalized beat cops, turning them into “law enforcement officers.” Figures are hard to come by, but one early report indicated that in the sixteen smallest states, the number of officers as a percentage of the population nearly doubled from 1910 to 1930.

Those who became subject to regular police surveillance included not just criminals in getaway cars but, more importantly, and for the first time, the respectable class of citizens who were the automobile’s early adopters. The need to discipline drivers and to do so without giving offense necessitated changes to the police function and to well-established laws. Officers now required discretion to administer the massive traffic enforcement regime and deal with the sensitivities of “law-abiding” citizens who kept violating traffic laws. The law’s accommodation of discretionary policing profoundly altered what it meant to live free from state intrusion in the automotive age. By the Cold War, U.S. society’s dependence on the police to maintain order raised troubling comparisons with totalitarian police. Unforeseen by midcentury jurists, their solution to the potential arbitrary policing of everyone led directly to the problem of discriminatory policing against minorities. Only by considering how U.S. society as a whole came to be policed can we more fully understand the history of our criminal justice and its troubled present…

But towns and cities quickly ran into an enforcement problem: everybody violated traffic laws. Noncompliance was not a new phenomenon, but violations of the rules of the road presented a different quandary for two reasons. First, drivers included respectable people, and their numbers were growing every year. Second, traffic lawbreaking resulted in tremendous damage, injury, and death, and those numbers were increasing every day. It soon became clear that the public’s interest in street and highway safety required more policing.

This meant that everyone became subject to discretionary policing. The well-off were among the first to buy cars, as were farmers who needed cars for more practical reasons. Even if independent farmers may not have been as wealthy as the early auto enthusiasts, as a group, they enjoyed social standing in a country with a strong sense of agrarian virtue. Driving quickly became a middle-class, or what used to be called “business-class,” phenomenon by the mid-1920s, when car ownership passed a tipping point: 55.7 percent of families in the United States owned a car in 1926, and 18 percent of those had more than one. But even the rest of the population who did not drive and instead walked were policed, too, for the regulation of drivers on public streets also required the regulation of pedestrians on those same streets.

Once the freedom of movement became circumscribed by many laws and regulations, we enacted laws that ultimately can only be enforced in the breach–when a police officer was around. In other words, most lawbreaking could not be punished (though traffic cameras can do some of that), so when and for whom the police chose to enforce the law became very important. In the extreme case of Ferguson, MO, it became a revenue mechanism indistinguishable from one that would be designed by a racist (whether the designers were racist is somewhat debatable). This also turns the police into unelected lawmakers, as they determine how and when the law will be applied.

The whole article (an excerpt from a book) is definitely worth reading.

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1 Response to Cars Turned Everyone Into Lawbreakers

  1. Bern says:

    Just one more reason to (fill in the blankety blank) cars…

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