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Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automobile Age

Posted in Research by Devin Maeztri on June 22nd, 2009

Book: Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automobile Age
Author: Brian Ladd
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
City: Chicago
Year: 2008

A review by Milton Takei

Brian Ladd’s book, Autophobia,is a history of the love and hatred people have felt for the automobile. Autophobes such as myself can take comfort in how, from the beginning of the age of the automobile, some people were against cars, for example because motorists disturbed the tranquility of both the city and the countryside. The dismaying part is that the attraction of the automobile soon overwhelmed the opposition.

The book is particularly strong in pointing out the injuries and deaths that automobiles cause. The World Health Organization estimates that automobile incidents kill over a million people yearly.

I have been struck by the fact that environmentalists can complain that windpower kills birds, while being seemingly unconcerned about the countless non-human animals that meet their deaths at the hand of motorists. Ladd mentions the passage in Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities in which an aristocrat kills a child with his carriage (p. 71), but he omits how later in the novel, an assassin takes revenge, leaving a note saying, “Drive him fast to his tomb. This, from Jacques [the revolutionaries].”

Ladd compares Europe and the United States, while also including Japan and the Global South. One interesting fact is that motorists in Japan drive less than people in Europe (p. 167). A graduate student from Japan once told me that he thought that the government there wanted everyone to own a car, but to not drive it very much. Japan’s automobile industry is very important, but the country imports all its oil. I think that citizens of Japan are also culturally more likely to accept governmental impositions.

The books attempts to explain why people love automobiles so much. The intoxication of high speed has been one lure, and the promise of freedom of movement provides another. Apparently, the bicycle does not go fast enough, and does not mean as much freedom. People associate cars with wealth, power and privilege. I’ve had motorists threaten to run me down as I was crossing the street (yes, they saw me, and yes, they wanted to make me scramble out of the way.)

I remember the days when, if you saw a man and a woman in a car, and the woman was driving, you assumed that the man had lost his drivers’ license. Ladd says that police harassment of African American motorists is an “example of the recurring fear that cars may be permitting the wrong sort of people to go where they shouldn’t go, do what they shouldn’t do, and escape proper control” (p. 66). I think that the corollary would be that some think that white people should be able to go where they please and do what they please, but the movements of people of color are suspect.

Ladd only briefly mentions global warming and peaking worldwide production of oil (p. 145). But the book reproduces on p. 3 a 1989 cartoon by Tom Toles in which a group of people are talking about global warming. Finally, one of them remarks, “The biggest problem is automobiles.” In the last panel, the cartoonist says, “Somehow, the discussion always stops at this point.”

One Response to “Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automobile Age”

  1. Chris Bradshaw Says:

    October 21st, 2009 at 7:07 am

    I liked the book a great deal. I thought it a bit better than Vanderbilt’s _Traffic_. His review of foreign-language sources expanded its viewpoint over previous books on this topic.

    He ends with little hope that the phobes will win: “It makes sense if we can agree that the dark side of automobility is a price worth paying for its blessings. but we have never agreed about these matters, and never will.” (final page, 186)

    I am working on a scheme to separate driving from ownership. It was nice to see him mention carsharing a couple times, but cited research to say that it has had little long-term impact on those who have practiced it for a few years.