Hell on Wheels
The Promise and Peril of America's Car Culture, 1900-1940
The emergence of the automobile on the American scene represented many things—excitement, freedom, progress-but also danger, death, and injury.
In this unique examination of America's changing cultural perceptions of the car, David Blanke tells how the automobile pulled society in two contradictory emotional directions: exhilaration in personal mobility versus anxiety over public safely. By investigating who owned cars, how they drove, and what kinds of accidents occurred, he shows how Americans struggled to resolve this dilemma.
“Blanke places the violence associated with automobility at the center of American history. . . . Blanke’s book is an excellent analysis of Americans’ confrontation with the risks of modern life. Automobile safety connects with so many narratives in American life, and Blanke masterfully draws upon many of them. . . . He has made a valuable contribution, not only to the history of the automobile but to American history in general.”
—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
“A useful, coherent work on an important subject. . . . Blanke presents vivid and convincing portraits of American driver’s disregard, even contempt, for efforts to control their actions behind the wheel . . . ”
—Pacific Historical ReviewSee all reviews...
“Valuable as a step toward an increasing appreciation of the place of accidents in America's early automotive history.”
—Michigan Historical Review
“For too long the interpretations of driving in the United States have fallen into two camps: one that romanticizes the car and its position in our popular culture or one that presents the car as the beast in the garden spewing pollution and encouraging sprawl as it chews up nature and turns it into the open road. Blanke’s book offers a nuanced and less-polemical look at our infatuation with the automobile, focusing on the individual who wanted the freedom promised by the speed and mobility of the open road and the government that wanted to regulate motorists’ behavior.”
—Southern California Quarterly
“Blanke has skillfully drawn on a wide range of sources to piece together his story. Perhaps the book’s most notable achievement is its success in rescuing the hackneyed idea of an American ‘love affair’ with the automobile and imbuing it with new analytical significance. Blanke presents a compelling case that the ‘love affair emerged as a shared visceral and intellectual acknowledgment of the freedoms of driving’—and that this love affair, in turn, greatly complicated reform efforts to improve auto safety. . . . This study significantly advances our understanding of how Americans understood risk and responsibility in the first half century of the motor age.”
—Journal of American History
“Readers will find a rich and interesting exploration of the debates over risk and safety as captured in the words of diverse figures including safety activists, literary authors, traffic engineers, highway engineers, automakers, legislators, educators, presidential commissions, insurance underwriters, accident victims, police officers, and more. . . . Hell on Wheels provides an interesting and well-researched study of the various attractions of early motoring and the limits that American motorists thus placed on the degree of safety reform and enforcement that they would tolerate.”
—Technology and Culture
“An innovative and compelling analysis of American efforts to reduce automobile accidents in the first four decades of the twentieth century. Blanke finally explains the paradox between American drivers’ concerns about the lack of safety on the highways and their failure to drive more responsibly. . . . A sophisticated and significant contribution to the literature.”
—Joel W. Eastman, author of Styling vs. Safety: The American Automobile Industry and the Development of Automobile Safety, 1900–1966
“An excellent piece of work that fills a huge historiographical gap and is a pleasure to read.”
—Clay McShane, author of Down the Asphalt Path: American Cities and the AutomobileSee fewer reviews...
Drawing on extensive research into public safety studies, insurance records, and drivers' own stories, Hell on Wheels is an unprecedented survey of the social, political, and cultural repercussions of auto accidents. Blanke shows how the "automotive love affair" emerged as a powerful component of driving and explores the growing tension between the allure of the open road and the risk of auto accidents. Along the way, he considers a host of shared values that defined the automobile age, such as the romantic freedom of driving and the common ownership of the nation's roadways. In exposing the critical choices between collective safety and individual liberty, he recounts how Americans confronted the tensions between enforcing traffic rules and preserving drivers' liberty.
In the days before mandatory drivers' education or licensing, people felt they were responsible but not accountable to the law—with the result that, between 1900 and 1940, auto accidents claimed nearly 200,000 more American lives than World War II. Blanke describes how Americans understood and responded to the new and dangerous personal freedoms unleashed by mass automobile use, examines their willingness to accept restrictions on their right to drive, and demonstrates the resulting failure of efforts to significantly reduce accidents. He then tells how fear of accident-prone drivers triggered safety reforms, improved road and car design, bettered driver training, and brought about stricter law enforcement.
Since the dawn of the auto, more than 3.2 million Americans have been killed in car accidents, yet we still thrill to the open road and feel constrained by highway speed limits. Hell on Wheels is a captivating study that shows how this love affair remains a powerful force that affects how drivers define public risk and personal safety in the modern age.