Cars & Culture

Over at his art blog, Gurney Journey, Dan Gurney points to a recent book published by Brian Ladd (University of Chicago Press) called Autophobia.  The teaser on the press website asks the following question:

Cars are the scourge of civilization, responsible for everything from suburban sprawl and urban decay to environmental devastation and rampant climate change—not to mention our slavish dependence on foreign oil from dubious sources abroad. Add the astonishing price in human lives that we pay for our automobility—some thirty million people were killed in car accidents during the twentieth century—plus the countless number of hours we waste in gridlock traffic commuting to work, running errands, picking up our kids, and searching for parking, and one can’t help but ask: Haven’t we had enough already? After a century behind the wheel, could we be reaching the end of the automotive age?

Dan Gurney asks an interesting follow-up question — why is that artists don’t seem fond of painting or drawing cars? (One commenter on the blog notes that artists don’t seem fond of computers or cell phones either.)

I’ve actually been reading a bit about cars lately for more or less the same reasons that probably inspired Ladd to write Autotopia.  Technologies change culture in all sorts of ways, and these changes are quickly transformed into matters of legal policy.  It is one thing to observe that a popular technology has changed the world.  It is another thing to evaulate the social benefits of that change.

I mentioned before that I’d like to see a student Note on Segways, but I imagine a seminar on law and automobiles would have almost too much to cover.  What, exactly, is the ideal relationship of the state to the automobile?  The recent controversy about bailing out the US auto industry is, at least in some ways, a legacy of the prior regulatory endorsement of the automobile by municipal, state, and federal goverment efforts in the last century.  Today, there are lawyers at the federal and state DOTs and DMVs who have spent their lives devoted, more or less, to the “law of the car.”  By some estimates, more than 50% of tort law is, in some sense, the “law of the car.”  Energy and environmental laws are, at least in part, “laws of the car” as well.  And any criminal procedure student can tell you about the fascinating subset of Fourth Amendment “law of the car” jurisprudence.  Carol Sanger has a fascinating paper that takes on the way the automobile transformed the lives of women.

Frank Easterbook once famously criticized cyberlaw for being a “law of the horse.” But maybe that is not such a bad description, if one replaces the horse with its successor technology, the car.  It is a given that cars are a technology that has radically transformed human culture and shaped the path of law as a consequence.  So maybe Easterbrook was onto something, if a century or so off.  In looking and wondering about the policy implications of the future of internet law, we might actually do well to look to the past of automobile law.

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