The Automotive Police State
February 5, 2020 10:23 AM   Subscribe

Legal historian Sarah Seo [twitter] appeared on the podcast The War On Cars to discuss her book Policing The Open Road[HUP], which covers the development of traffic laws and police stopping cars in the United States[New Rambler] and the concurrent increase in police and policing power[Atlantic]: How Cars Transformed Policing, Sarah A. Seo [Boston Review] - "Before the mass adoption of the car, most communities barely had a police force and citizens shared responsibility for enforcing laws. Then the car changed everything."

A Brief History of the Traffic Stop (Or How the Car Created the Police State) [Observer]
When the car first appeared on the American road in the 1890s, many pedestrians deemed the invention as as a death machine. There were no real rules to the road and what laws there were varied from town to town. The rich owned cars before police departments did, so there was little law enforcement could do to stop them. Before the car, there was no concept of the “pedestrian.” The streets were for walking in and for horses trotting along at a few miles an hour (except, of course, for horses owned by President Grant). Cars completely disrupted people’s conception of the thoroughfare. Children had never been taught to look both ways; the entire road safety education motorists now take for granted only began after thousands of children were killed by cars. The model T was first produced in 1908, and large-scale car ownership started in the 1920s. By 1925, car accidents claimed about 20,000 traffic fatalities per year. That’s more than half of the traffic fatalities in 2015, a year when the population was three times as large and American drivers drove 25 times more miles than they did in 1925.
It wasn’t guaranteed that the police would end up monitoring the nation’s roads, or even that they would drive automobiles themselves. Although drivers today take for granted the presence of police cruisers with flashing red and blue lights, Seo shows that this was a contingent historical outcome. In fact, the police cruiser as we know it was not popularized until after World War II. During the early years of the automobile, officers drove unmarked cars, rode bicycles, and sometimes even commandeered citizens’ cars to pursue criminals.

The change from officers walking the beat to squads of police cruisers was not immediate. As in the Robinson case, the judges and public officials who effected this transformation did so to remedy the dangers faced by both traffic cops and motorists on the open road. According to Seo, the racial disparities in the traffic law enforcement regime developed well after police began patrolling the nation’s highways.

Seo argues that these lawmakers did not “intend” to facilitate the “systematic policing of minorities.” Rather, early traffic law enforcement necessitated—for the first time in the nation’s history—that police direct their attention to the so-called “respectable class of citizens who were the automobile’s early adopters.” Before this, police only policed the “margins of society.” Now they policed everyone.
Why we can — and must — create a fairer system of traffic enforcement, Sarah A. Seo [WaPo]
Suddenly, even average citizens became regular misdemeanor offenders. At first, traffic violations were enforced like any other crime. Violators were arrested, taken into custody and brought before a magistrate. But it was impractical for traffic cops to leave their posts to bring every offender to court. Also, full-blown trial procedures for even the most minor traffic offenses swamped the courts.

In some jurisdictions, officers began to hand out summonses, which were notices to appear in court at a later time. By the early 1920s, cities started experimenting with citations or tickets, which became commonplace in the late 1930s. A ticket differed from a summons in that, rather than having to appear in court and go through the criminal process, a person could simply pay a fine at the police station.

The streamlined procedures for traffic offenses, however, created a basic rule-of-law problem. In a democracy, the police were not supposed to exercise judicial powers. In the United States, guilt was supposed to be determined after a fair trial overseen by a neutral magistrate. The ticketing system essentially eliminated the judicial portion of criminal adjudication.
What Cars Can Teach Us About New Policing Technologies, Sarah A. Seo [NYRB]
Newer technologies have only bolstered the police’s traffic surveillance capabilities. Computer-equipped patrol cars have now made it possible for officers on the road to check for outstanding warrants and revoked licenses, both of which often stem from unpaid fines or traffic tickets and disproportionately affect poor and minority citizens. A car stop on suspicion for driving with a revoked license is a common enough occurrence that a case challenging its constitutionality is before the Supreme Court this term. Once pulled over, the police, using their discretion, can continue the investigation beyond the initial traffic violation. The odor of marijuana—easy to allege and difficult to disprove later in a court of law—has so often been used to justify car searches that one New York judge declared that the “time has come to reject the canard of marijuana emanating from nearly every vehicle subject to a traffic stop.” Traffic law enforcement was originally intended to protect all citizens, but it has ultimately paved the way for discriminatory policing.
Driving, Police Power, and the Word: Sarah A. Seo’s Policing the Open Road[LiberalCurrents]
More to the point, Seo’s book purposely offers a reappraisal of the now century-long American project of building our cities and our lives around the automobile. To resist that project’s reach in our new developments, to say nothing of reversing its accomplishments to date, will take much more than a single statute or precedent. But Policing the Open Road is a good place to start if one wishes to understand the stakes.
Was The Automotive Era A Terrible Mistake? [New Yorker]
posted by the man of twists and turns (25 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
I listened to that War on Cars podcast episode when it came out, and it made me seriously reconsider my bike lane enforcement opinions. Now, rather than arguing for bike lane enforcement I tend to use encroachment as a reason to ask planners and politicians to prioritize fully separated/protected bike lane infrastructure. (Honestly, given that cops are some of the worst offenders of parking in bike lanes, the futility of asking for more enforcement is a factor as well.)

The podcast is a really good listen - thank you for this post giving me more resources to dive into!
posted by misskaz at 10:28 AM on February 5 [14 favorites]

Preparing for a Future with Autonomous Vehicles (Police Chief Magazine)
Imagine a world in which drivers do not commit traffic violations, and vehicles are not involved in collisions. That would be a welcome change for law enforcement agencies, given the thousands of lives lost every year in traffic collisions. Autonomous vehicles, though, will also raise a number of critical uncertainties. Absent the need to deter and investigate traffic collisions, the role of law enforcement agencies, particularly highway patrols, could be significantly altered. Further, the traffic citation revenue many local law enforcement agencies currently rely upon could be severely diminished as well. The traditional traffic stop, a cornerstone of policing for decades, could be all but eliminated. The police must also consider the myriad of ways in which these autonomous vehicles could be used for illicit purposes by terrorists, hackers, and other criminals. With so many considerations, it is imperative that law enforcement agencies adequately plan and prepare for the changes autonomous vehicle technology will likely bring about.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:01 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]

(Honestly, given that cops are some of the worst offenders of parking in bike lanes, the futility of asking for more enforcement is a factor as well.)

I'm not convinced they don't frequently do this on purpose or at least do it in the spirit of killing two birds with one stone.
posted by invitapriore at 1:42 PM on February 5 [5 favorites]

Thanks for this article. I just finished trying one of these today.
posted by Thrakburzug at 1:49 PM on February 5

I should think eliminating policing as a profit center for municipalities might go a long way in correcting much of these issues.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:58 PM on February 5 [6 favorites]

Yeah, but then you have to, like, tax people, and that’s very unpopular
posted by The River Ivel at 2:04 PM on February 5 [5 favorites]

Just raise the price of parking tickets, FFS. $15 is a joke, not even a flick of the finger. Make people pay like 10% of the KBB of the car or something for the first offence in a year. On the second offence, crush it on the spot and leave the washing-machine sized cube there as a warning to others.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:09 PM on February 5 [12 favorites]

A relevant comment by Deep Dish from 2009, about places without police.
posted by ecco at 2:30 PM on February 5 [3 favorites]

...crush it on the a warning to others.

This would only work until the mayor's wife's car gets cubed for NO PARKING in front of City Hall.

OTOH, the Denver Boot was the first device that immobilized the car, publicly embarrassed the driver, and increased municipal income. More about wheel clamps at WP:
The modern wheel clamp, originally known as the auto immobiliser, was invented in 1944 and patented in 1958 by Frank Marugg.[7] Marugg was a pattern maker, a violinist with the Denver Symphony Orchestra, and a friend of many Denver politicians and police department officials.

The police department needed a solution to a growing parking enforcement problem. The city towed ticketed cars to the pound, where they were often vandalised. Those whose cars were damaged sued the city for losses and the police had to itemize everything in the cars. Dan Stills, head of the city's traffic division, thought an immobilizer would avoid the expensive towing problem and approached Marugg with an idea to improve on the device to keep the cars where they were parked.[8]

The Denver police first used the wheel boot on 5 January 1955 and collected over US$18,000 (US$171,794 in 2019 dollars[9]) in its first month of use. ... The boot allowed Denver to maintain one of the largest collection rates for parking fines of any city in the US through its first fifty years.[11]
It takes a musician to strike just the right note.
posted by cenoxo at 2:54 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]

Nowadays they have "barnacles" instead of boots, which attach to your windshield. Of course, these are allegedly easy to hack.

As it turns out, to take off the Barnacle, all you need to do is run your vehicle’s windshield defroster for 15 minutes, and then use a credit card or similar thin piece of plastic to release the suction cup around the edge. Presto! You’re free from fees.

Other students shared other solutions – blocking its signal and deactivating it by covering it in aluminum, or fitting your windshield with a mock Barnacle of your own – but our fave low-tech workaround was shared by a user who found out his campus only had 12 wheel boots to go around and bought and illegally parked 12 scrapyard cars that could be “sacrificed” so everyone else could park however they wanted.

posted by emjaybee at 5:02 PM on February 5 [4 favorites]

Of course, these are allegedly easy to hack.

Angle Grinder Man
would like a word.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 5:28 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]

how do i reach the level where $15 is a joke, not even a flick of the finger
posted by scrowdid at 9:02 PM on February 5 [4 favorites]

New York City is definitely a place where police presence at bike lanes is problematic. I started looking up videos to link each word in that sentence, but it just led to a rabbit hole. You don't have to set the boat out very far from shore to see the NYPD using their power to ticket people on bikes for not using a bike lane (not an actual offence in NYC), ticket people on bikes for having a car run them down, run over people's bikes just out of spite, and confiscate e-bikes from POC food delivery workers just to take away their livelihood.
And this is just the stuff where the situation was calm enough that someone could get a camera running.

misskaz is 100% right about this situation: the answer is to build the infrastructure that makes streets safer. If you don't want to listen to the 8m video, the nutshell summary is that you need to:
  • Control speeds.
  • Separate road users by speed/kinetic energy.
  • Ensure that the various uses the road is being put to (destination, thoroughfare, etc) do not conflict.
  • Make roads simple and predictable, so that outside visitors aren't at a safety disadvantage over area experts.
  • Make it difficult to make mistakes, particularly at junctions.
  • Make your roads "forgiving", so that making a mistake has fewer consequences.
The post-Infocom Interactive Fiction world (yes I'm going somewhere with this) came up with a pompously-named "Player's Bill of Rights" for design patterns in early 80s games that most people found needlessly frustrating by the 90s. One of the more infuriating ones was games that forced you to "learn by dying". Games would lead you to a choice without providing enough information to make it in an informed manner, and often the only way you could know which was the correct path was to watch your character die for having made the wrong one.

Well, in IF you can always restart or restore a saved game. Not so, it goes without saying, in real life. But a lot of engineers and legislators and enforcers still occasionally say things like "Eh, people will learn soon enough, the hard way if need be!" We keep reverting to a society where justice is interpreted as "Punishment is thrilling for those who go unpunished."

I've used the phrase "learn by dying" at public meetings to try and lampoon this perspective.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 11:33 PM on February 5 [9 favorites]

There's an anecdote I was sure I'd told on the blue before, but I can't seem to find it so here it is again.

One day when I was young, my parents called us to dinner a bit before it was served. I entered the dining room to see my little brother hop up onto his chair.

Now on a plate in front of where he sat was a rather sharp knife that had been left out from the preparation of the food. It just happened to be the closest seat to the kitchen doorway or something, so that was where it had been left. The point of the knife was still pretty far away from him, but it was pointed at him instead of toward the center of the table.

My father was standing nearby, and he wordlessly reached down and grabbed my brother's arms, pinning him to the chair. Being a squirmy young boy, he fought back with growing intensity as my father squeezed harder.

My mother came out to see what the commotion was, and asked what the deuce was going on.

"He has to be restrained!" my father grunted, "There's a knife!"

My mother looked at my father as though he had just said the most foolish possible phrase in the English language, leaned over, and took the knife back into the kitchen.

Some people think "the child must be restrained", and some people just effin' move the knife.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 11:51 PM on February 5 [13 favorites]

> I listened to that War on Cars podcast episode

I urge others to do the same. The thing that struck me was how different policing was before cars. One of the things that changed with cars was "professionalization" of the job. Police forces used to be much smaller & rarely interacted with "respectable" members of society except as victims. They could violate the civil rights of vagrants and bums. When they were expected to pull over cars, they had to be respectful and be careful in their citation writing.

They didn't even know how to pull cars over at first. One of the first times traffic enforcement was tried, the police tried to shoot out the tires & ended up hitting the passenger.

What See doesn't address is that this really applied only to white folk. When black Americans got cars, it seems that street "justice" was still in effect.
posted by ASCII Costanza head at 8:33 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]

how do i reach the level where $15 is a joke, not even a flick of the finger

Yeah? Where the fuck are parking tickets only $15?

In Los Angeles, tickets start at $68 and quickly go to like $165 if you go past the ~21 day due date. After 5 outstanding tickets, you get a boot.

That cost, combined with weekly "can't park here because of street sweeping" and the fact that the poorer parts of the city are apartment buildings built in places originally zoned for post WWII single housing units, means that right now that the most vulnerable citizens of the city are incredibly disportionately affected by the existing parking fines. Crushing cars after the second occurrence would make Trump's "kids in cages" look like something that deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.
posted by sideshow at 9:53 AM on February 6 [4 favorites]

how do i reach the level where $15 is a joke, not even a flick of the finger
Not for everyone, of course, but how much gas can you buy for $15? How many hours does that get you parking for? If you can afford the car, insurance, maintenance, fuel, and parking you’re not going to find $15 a deterrent unless the enforcement rate is unusually high.
posted by adamsc at 12:10 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

Speaking as a sometimes broke person who knows many broke/poor people who often need a car for work: you have no idea what you are talking about. $15 is often an entire months discretionary spending.
posted by Mitheral at 12:22 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]

If you can afford the car, insurance, maintenance, fuel, and parking you’re not going to find $15 a deterrent unless the enforcement rate is unusually high.

In lots of areas it is non negotiable to have a car in order to exist as a person with an income to buy food with, whether you have the financial headroom to do so without going into debt.
posted by PMdixon at 10:40 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

Parking tickets here in Montreal range between $50 and $70. If you get towed during a snow removal operation, it can crest $100. I've never seen a $15 parking ticket in my life. It sounds like a beautiful fantasy.
posted by jordantwodelta at 1:08 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]

related to this, I was listening to Factually! hosted by Adam Conover's episode on Why It’s Legal to Kill Someone with Your Car, and Other Ways Our Laws Make Driving Mandatory with Greg Shill. You'll remember Shill from the previous post Should Law Subsidize Driving? :
Many of the automobile’s social costs originate in the individual preferences of consumers, but an overlooked amount is encouraged—indeed enforced—by law. Yes, the U.S. is car-dependent by choice. But it is also car-dependent by law.

This Article conceptualizes this problem, and offers a way out. It begins by identifying a submerged, disconnected system of rules that furnish indirect yet extravagant subsidies to driving. These subsidies lower the price of driving by comprehensively reassigning its costs to non-drivers and society at large. They are found in every field of law, from traffic law to land use regulation to tax, tort, and environmental law. Law’s role is not primary, and at times it is even constructive. But where it is destructive, it is uniquely so: law not only inflames a public health crisis but legitimizes it, ensuring the continuing dominance of the car.

The Article urges a reorientation of law away from this system of automobile supremacy in favor of consensus social priorities, such as health, prosperity, and equity.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:05 PM on February 7 [2 favorites]

In lots of areas it is non negotiable to have a car in order to exist as a person with an income to buy food with, whether you have the financial headroom to do so without going into debt.
I’ve known a few people in those situations. They were also careful to follow the law and never got tickets. This is why, as has been discussed above, these things need to be indexed to the owner’s affluence unless your goal is to terrorize the poor (an explanation which is pretty often right). It’s rare that I see someone poor casually disregarding the law - it’s almost always someone in a vehicle which is neither old nor cheap, exactly who you’d expect can disregard most tickets.
posted by adamsc at 7:12 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]

So only the poor people who deserve it because they aren’t careful deserve a ticket that is unaffordable, got it.

Honestly the glee that’s on display in this thread in regards to punishing car drivers is disturbing to me.
posted by Drumhellz at 7:41 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

drumhellz: that’s the opposite of the point being made. I was simply pointing out that keeping tickets low / unenforced under the guise of helping the poor is telling the middle class and above that they can buy their way out of following those laws.

Tickets need to be indexed to avoid that problem and if your goal is to help the poor you should be talking about transit improvements since that benefits everyone across the board while the barrier to entry for owning a car still leaves many people out (purchase, insurance, fuel, maintenance, safe parking, etc.), not to mention that people are poor because they have disabilities which also make driving hard or impossible.
posted by adamsc at 3:42 AM on February 10 [3 favorites]

I processed it wrong and got spicy, thanks for clarifying; and I apologize, Adamsc.
posted by Drumhellz at 11:44 AM on February 10 [1 favorite]

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