Published by EH.Net (September 2019)

Lee Vinsel, Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. vii + 432 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4214-2965-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Louis Cain, Department of Economics, Northwestern University and Loyola University Chicago.

Moving Violations is a superb history of automobile regulation in the United States from 1893 to the present, a case study of the relationship between regulation and technological change. The emphasis is on safety, pollution, and fuel consumption. Lee Vinsel, a professor in Virginia Tech’s department of Science, Technology, and Society, notes the successes of auto regulation — which slowed after the Ford administration. In spite of this general inaction, it has been estimated that, over the past several decades, automobile regulations have saved in excess of 600,000 lives, reduced emissions by 99 percent since the late 1960s, and led to a current average fuel economy of just under 25 miles per gallon.

To Vinsel, the extremes of beliefs concerning the relationship between government and technology range from “Chicago School” advocates recommending government “get out of the way” to those who believe government is an “essential source of technological change.” Vinsel hypothesizes what he considers a middle ground: government regulation promotes technological change. Regulation is “any effort to reduce a public problem” (p. 2). Technological change is “not only changes in technologies themselves … but also transformations in how technologies are used and the systems that surround them” (p. 2). One reason innovation is a result is that “regulations are most effective when they motivate experts to focus on specific problems” (p. 301). To take an early, simple example, the demand for speedometers resulted from speed limit laws.

Vinsel’s hypothesis is argued within a select chronology of automobile regulation presented in four parts plus an introduction and conclusion. As forceful a case as Vinsel makes for his hypothesis, it is important to remember that his support is a case study of a single industry.

The first part, entitled “Standards,” deals with the period up to World War II. The initial automobiles were “playthings of the rich.” Mass production broadened the market, and the larger number of autos brought a demand for improved safety to quell the growing number of injuries and deaths. A national safety movement arose with the Model T that believed “standardization is the answer.” This gave rise to such things as headlights, traffic signals, traffic laws, and drivers’ licenses.

The second and third parts cover the period from World War II into the 1970s — the second with respect to safety regulation and the third with respect to pollution. There were significant advances in knowledge with respect to crash safety and air pollution beginning in the 1950s, while the 1960s brought a new attitude toward the use of regulation. As Vinsel shows, there are significant differences in the way regulation developed along these two dimensions. The second part focuses on the development of the science of impact biomechanics and the idea of crashworthiness, how that led to agencies such as National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and how the auto industry was able to weaken the standards the NHTSA proposed. The third focuses on how the link between automobile exhaust and smog was detected, how that led to a wider understanding of the automobile as polluter, and how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was successful in developing strict regulations with regard to auto emissions. The juxtaposition of these two parts is especially effective.

The final part, beginning with the Carter administration, is entitled “Bureaucracy,” and uses the “struggles” over fuel economy, the CAFE standards, to highlight the EPA’s struggles to maintain its credibility with the coming of deregulation and of a political dynamic whereby, when administrations’ change, people from the newly-elected party undo what their predecessors did. For the most part, regulation has become “reactive, mandating the use of already-available, widely-deployed technologies, rather than proactively setting the agenda” (p. 270). Does the link between regulation and innovation hold when the former is “reactive”? Vinsel notes that, increasingly, federal R&D spending has been used to stimulate innovation.

The Vinsel hypothesis needs further testing. Not only are case studies of more industries necessary, but I would like to see more about automobile regulation. Steps taken with respect to the history of automobile regulation can then be applied to the history of regulation in other industries. As he argues, “we must change the way we think about regulation. We must examine it in finer detail, with more historical fidelity” (p. 318).

A sentence in the Introduction refers to “unintended consequences” and one in the Conclusion refers to “ironies and tradeoffs.” I would like to see those ideas integrated more into the history. For example, in The Environmental Forum of March/April 2012, David Haddock notes that an unintended consequence of the CAFE standards was that “CAFE induced domestically produced cars to burn less fuel, but perversely induced the average foreign import sold in the United States to burn more.” Domestic cars became smaller as the average import became larger. This type of consequence is not discussed, and the alternative policy, a fuel tax, is given relatively short shrift. Vinsel does address some counterfactuals, but he does not address the potential effects of alternative policies.

The adopted regulations may have bred innovation, but was it the “ideal” innovation? What is the probability regulation will lead to adopting the optimal technology? Will regulation lead to an informed choice between technologies, for example, Betamax versus VHS? Will it be flexible and adaptable when a new technology (DVDs) arrives? History can tell us how well we performed. Since Vinsel concludes that regulations “unleash creativity and channel the human capacity for problem solving toward our greatest objects of concern” (p. 318), a logical next step is to ask, what could have been done to make the outcome even more desirable?

In the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970, Sen. Edmund Muskie inserted emission standards into the law when “both legislators and regulators knew that the automakers currently lacked available technology necessary to meet these standards” (p. 179). Vinsel cites this as an example of “technology forcing,” legislation that induced technological change. The law did indeed put responsibility for developing a viable technology onto the companies. When the act was written, research was underway that led to the adoption of the catalytic converter, but what if it hadn’t worked? How many examples are there, across industries, where firms failed to meet standards in a timely fashion due to a lack of “available technology”?

Vinsel assumes regulation will identify the requisite expertise, but the regulatory process is a political process, and there are no guarantees when regulation becomes tied to political ideology. He notes, “strong laws are not enough; regulatory agencies also require leadership and insightful organizational strategies to meet their goals” (p. 173). Are successful innovations more likely to result from specific approaches to and types of regulation? Are they more likely to emerge in specific types of industries?

Moving Violations will benefit all those with an interest in transportation history, regulatory history, technological history, innovation, and public policy and many others who will find something to savor in the details, perhaps an anecdote or two that will enliven a lecture or form the basis of a term paper. I look forward to Lee Vinsel’s future work as he further tests his hypothesis.
Louis Cain is Adjunct Professor of Economics at Northwestern University where he is a member of the Center for Economic History. He also is Professor Emeritus of Economics at Loyola University Chicago. He co-edited the Oxford Handbook of American Economic History (2018) and co-authored with Brooks Kaiser, “A Century of Environmental Legislation,” in Research in Economic History (2016).

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