The auto frame: a vehicle for transgression?

“if we really feared the car crash, none of us would be able to drive a car”
-J.G. Ballard

Xenophobia and Racism excuses all kinds of calls for violence against Refugees in transit, Islamic people in public space, or nonviolent black civil disobedience, but perhaps none of these asymmetrical calls for violent interruption are as self-righteously wanton as calls for violence by automobile. Whether launched by ISIS or “Vanilla ISIS”, violent attacks using the automobile as weapon can be seen as a “hack” of our institutionalized desensitization to cars as a cause of death, and their privileged place in the built environment. The right of way of the automobile is enshrined in American culture and embedded in laws and standards of city design in all sorts of places. It’s more socially acceptable to expect and shrug off violence against someone in the right of way of an automobile than in almost any space in American cities.

This “automotive frame” developed throughout early controversies of “jay drivers” vs. “jay walkers” and subsequent push by industry leaders like Charles Hayes to cast blame for collisions away from the vehicle itself, and frame the street as the rightful domain of the car. Hayes “warned his colleagues that bad publicity over traffic casualties could soon lead to “legislation that will hedge the operation of automobiles with almost unbearable restrictions.” The solution was to persuade city people that “the streets are made for vehicles to run upon.” The automotive frame simultaneously casts blame off of the vehicle, while also granting it a life of its own and naturalizing its behavior (cars will be cars?). As such, it diminishes the agency and culpability of the human behind the wheel.

Diminishing the human agency involved in the design and operation of the automobile certainly helped the industry expand and gain subsidies; it granted the automobile a sort of “manifest destiny” which we can see again today as autonomous vehicles seem to loom inevitably on the horizon. I think that this social frame, even though it was constructed to help ease the adoption of new technology, has always been ripe for turning to other purposes as well. Any “liminal” frame built to give permission to new sorts of behavior and promote tolerance of its risks can be repurposed by anyone with a desire to challenge social norms. Gunnar Myrdal notes, “the coming of the cheap automobile has meant for Southern Negroes, who can afford one, a partial emancipation from Jim Crowism.” “ “Race is most completely ignored on the public highway…. Effective equality seems to come at about twenty-five miles an hour or above.” But while the automotive frame is ripe for subversion, it is also tied up with institutional inequality and racism, which deploy it with far more power. Even though the privileged position of the automobile could be deployed to avoid persecution, a black driver still faced institutional risks along the road, evidenced by the popularity of the “negro motorist green book”.

The way that the automotive frame is enhanced by institutionally privileged transgressors today becomes clear every time the media has trouble pinning the agency in language around automotive attacks, allowing the “acceptable death” frame we grant automobiles to seed our minds with doubt when someone acts violently with a vehicle (was it an accident? who had the right of way?). Headlines sometimes assign agency to the vehicle rather than the driver (car collides with…), a phenomenon that the bicycle lobby is actively trying to reframe with the #crashnotaccident tag. I’m trying to argue here that this “accidental” frame for automotive death is #1 not natural but a product of over a century of auto-centric lobbying and #2 that it can be cover for transgression, whether it’s progressive social transgression or regressive reactionary violence. Automobiles enjoy a unique privilege in the built environment that can be turned to all sorts of ends, but is especially useful for those who enjoy other kinds of institutional privileges besides “driver”. We see this in calls for new laws to forgive drivers who injure protesters with their vehicle as long as it can be argued they took “due care” to avoid them; and in recent events in Charlottesville, where alt-right activists immediately sowed rumors to confuse the culpability of the driver, going to far as to question if we knew who the driver really was.

A recognition of the automotive frame as a subvert-ible construct is shown by cities that began to build defensive space in their downtowns against the automobile. If you go to the “gherkin” in London you will see the large bollards surrounding the bottom of the building, installed out of fear of IRA car bombs. Melbourne recently blanketed their downtown with anti-terror concrete bollards. New York has taken similar measures in spaces like time square under the guise of fun public space makeovers. what is interesting about these spatial deterrents to automotive violence is that in focusing on the mode of violence rather than the perpetrator, they are still operating within the frame that casts automotive death as a “natural” causality (cars, being cars, kill, and we must adapt to it) as opposed to a “social” causality (people crash cars). it is not a trivial phenomenon that we treat traffic accident reports with the same language we use for the weather. We often operate within these sorts of socially constructed frames that shape our thinking without realizing they are there, but we need to examine how they came to be and how to reframe ourselves when our frames hide institutionalized problems.

As autonomous vehicle technology begins to diffuse into the city, the automotive frame will be reconstituted as an “autonomous” frame. Elon Musk, one of the only people who might feel the full ethical weight of car-related death as a design choice rather than an “accident”, claimed that rushing out early AV tech was a moral decision because early casualties would pale in comparison to the epidemic of death in the human-driver system. It seems like we will have the opportunity to see the automotive frame from the outside as it is renegotiated, and render all manner of naturalized phenomenon as social constructions once again. We should think carefully about how we might participate in this re-negotiation, which liberatory paths might be opened, as well as how the same old institutional inequalities and violence will find their way into it.

Further reading:

Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis

“Dangerous Instrumentality”: The Bystander as Subject in Automobility

Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb

These State Lawmakers Indulged the Violent Fantasy of Ramming Protesters With a Car

Street Rivals: Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street

What stopped the car in Times Square? A closer look at bollards

Finsbury Park attack: Counter-terror police investigating after man killed in van attack near London mosque

Fox News, Daily Caller delete posts encouraging people to drive through protests

Melbourne Is Responding To Its New Anti-Terror Bollards In The Most Melbourne Way Possible

Automated Driving in Its Social, Historical and Cultural Contexts

Driving While Black: The Car and Race Relations in Modern America


Crime prevention through environmental design

The secret of anti-terror architecture: Your city is probably safer than you realize