Belts and Roads: Governmental Visions for Transport and Mobility. Strategic Transport Infrastructures and the State
The International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility (T²M) calls for papers to be presented at its 18th annual conference, which will take place in Shanghai, People’s Republic of China, on 21 – 24 October 2020.
The Local Organising Committee of T²M invites all academic researchers and practitioners working on history, sociology, politics and planning of transport, traffic and mobility to participate in the Conference, a scientific meeting dedicated to the study of strategic transport infrastructures and the state.
The Conference will take place at Tongji University in Shanghai. The city provides an ideal setting for discussing the role of the state for big transport infrastructure planning. The conference will include an opportunity to visit China and its Belt and Road initiative.
The T²M Annual Conference is open to papers and sessions on any field or topic of historical and social science mobility studies. However, we especially invite the submission of single papers or full sessions (three papers) on any topic related to “strategic transport infrastructures and the state”.
The conference title focuses on the history and future of governmental transport infrastructures in vision, planning, and implementation. Sessions should analyse these governmental programs and their economic, political and military implications.We encourage submissions for the analysis of strategic governmental planning from urban to intercontinental transport.
Governmental visions and plans were absolutely crucial for the erection of transport infrastructures throughout history, but the actual motivation for the selection of this year’s specific theme is the official Chinese vision and policy for transcontinental economic exchange and infrastructures, which in 2013 was named „One Belt, One Road“ (OBOR) (Yīdài Yīlù, 一带一路). The name recenty changed to Belt and Road Initiative （BRI）to avoid the focus on one connection alone, as the policy includes many transport connections via land and sea. Sometimes, the initiative is called the new economic Silk Road (Xīn Sīchóuzhīlù,新丝绸之路). The term „new silk road“ refers to the economic connections between China and Europe since the second century BC and throughout medieval and early modern history. However, the term „silk road“ was coined by the geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen not before the 1870s.
Tongji University, which is one of the leading research universities in China and in planning sciences often cited as number one in the country, has strong international relations. The University has created colleges with European Universities since many years, e.g. CDHK (Chinesisch-Deutsches Hochschulkolleg) and IFCIM (Institut Franco-Chinois d’Ingénierie et de Management). The T2M conference will take place in the premises of CHDK. IFCIM will invite to a second event on “Transport with a High Level of Service” (THNS2020) at the same time. The organizing committee does comprise members from Tongji University, CDHK, Center for Global History of Shanghai University, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences (Beijing) and Nanjing University.
In order to advance collaboration between universities and policy makers, both academic researchers and practitioners working on transport and border issues are most welcome to attend.
It is a T²M tradition that paper and session proposals are not limited to the general topic. We ask for paper and session proposals for all themes in the field of transport, traffic and mobility. By this, the annual conference will give, in a broad way, an up-to-date overview on the field of historical transport and mobility studies.
The Conference language is English.
The final deadline for proposals is April 15, 2020. The proposal must include a short abstract, the title of the presentation, the name of the presenter(s), CV, e-mail address of the author(s), contact number and information on audiovisual needs. This must be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will notify participants of acceptance on May 15t, 2013 at the latest.
The deadline for the full paper (6-8 pages) is August 15, 2020 as we will distribute all papers beforehand in an online version. Presenters at the Conference may assume that their paper has been read and they should prepare a fifteen-minute summary to allow for debate and discussion within the session.
Submission of a fully completed poster form is mandatory for all speakers, for T2M wants to invest more energy into communication. Deadline of final posters is August 15, 2020 to email@example.com. The poster format should be a pdf. It will be published in A2; therefore pictures should be in fine resolution and letters in appropriate size.
Posters will be judged. The best posters will receive a prize.
T²M TRAVEL GRANTS
Ph.D. students and scholars from emerging countries are encouraged to apply for travel grants at T²M. Please send in your application together with the proposal at:firstname.lastname@example.org. (Please download a travel grant form at Travel Grant Form.
The participants may need to obtain a visa. The organisers of T²M are prepared to assist delegates with obtaining a visa by sending official invitation letters upon request. This letter however does not involve any commitments by the Conference organisers to cover fees, accommodation, travel expenses or other costs connected with participation in the Conference.
To obtain an invitation to T2M, delegates must first complete the registration form and settle all conference and related fees. Delegates are encouraged to make their invitation requests at their earliest convenience.
Please note that delegates are responsible for their own travel arrangements, including determining the visa requirements for travel to Shanghai for the Conference. If you are considering participating in any post-conference tours, please make sure that you make the necessary visa arrangements
The T²M organisers will not be held responsible for a visa not granted. Failure to obtain a visa will not be accepted as grounds for refund of any fees or any other costs paid to the Conference.
Siegfried Zhiqiang Wu, Vice President Tongji UniversityPan Haixiao, Tongji UniversityKeping Li, Tongji University
Sigrun Abels, China Center, TU Berlin
Hans-Liudger Dienel, TU Berlin
Etienne Faugier, Ecole des Mines ParisTech ISIGE, T2M Association
Keping Li, Tongji UniversityPan Haixiao, Tongji University
Iris Borowy, Center for Global History, Shanghai University
Hans-Liudger Dienel, Berlin University of TechnologyGijs Mom, Eindhoven University of TechnologyMathieu Flonneau, Paris 1 University, President T2MInes von Racknitz, Nanjing UniversityRong Xinchun, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, BeijingZhang Xiuli, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences
Questions concerning the Annual Conference to our T2M Executive Secretary Etienne Faugier email@example.com
Robin B. Williams, Savannah College of Art and Design
Table of Contents
Street Pavements before Asphalt
The Labor of Street Paving
The paving of streets with macadam, blocks or bricks represented a vital development in the modernization of cities beginning in the nineteenth century. It also represented the product of extensive and often highly skilled human labor. Images of anonymous work crews installing pavement frequently appeared in the pages of municipal reports, underscoring a city’s commitment to invest in such labor-intensive and costly public works. Occasionally the labor involved in street paving generated surprising public acclaim for individual craftsmen, most notably James Garfield “Indian Jim” Brown, whose skill and efficiency defied belief. But making street pavement successful went well beyond its installation. From the preparatory harvesting and transporting of materials and their shaping into usable pavements to their maintenance through the prominent efforts of street cleaning crews, human labor was the historical agent shaping the interrelationship of advancements in modes of transit and the evolution of surface pavements. That tradition gained renewed importance with the spread of the historic preservation movement to street pavement in the 1970s, which highlighted the importance of skilled labor needed to restore historic street surfaces.
Street Pavements Before Asphalt
Before modern synthetic sheet asphalt assumed its dominion over streets and highways in the 1920s, North American cities employed a wide array of street pavement materials. The remarkable breadth of materials was matched by the labor skills required to create and install them. Beginning with cobblestones in New York in the seventeenth century and in Philadelphia by the early eighteenth century, most cities experimented with diverse materials beginning in the 1800s depending on their geographic location, economic resources and needs. Early nineteenth-century use of macadam (a kind of layered gravel) led to midcentury experiments with wood blocks, granite or sandstone Belgian blocks, and later asphalt blocks and vitrified bricks, among others, sometimes all at the same time in the same city.
The earliest municipal efforts to pave streets in American cities sought the most expedient and affordable materials and involved more brute muscle than skilled craftsmanship. Beginning in the seventeenth century, East Coast port cities made use of cobblestones, irregular naturally rounded stones that arrived in the holds of ships as ballast. To make room for the heavy loads of raw materials for export, the ballast stones were manually removed from the ships and typically deposited on a wharf, where they became a ready resource for street pavement. Princess Street in Alexandria, Virginia, believed to have been installed by Hessian soldiers, is typical in comprising a wide variety of stone types and sizes laid in a loose and random pattern (figures 1 and 2). By the mid-nineteenth century, however, cobblestones began to fall out of favor as pavement experts like William Gillespie, a professor of civil engineering at Union College in Schenectady, New York, considered them a “common but very inferior pavement which disgraces the streets of nearly all our cities.”
Achieving road surfaces better suited to the growing number of wheeled vehicles in industrial cities would require more skilled and intensive labor. Scottish inventor John Loudon McAdam developed a layered pavement, macadam, as it came to be known, that involved workers breaking stones to a consistent size able to be passed through a two-inch ring (figure 3). The rule of thumb for laborers was that no rock should be too large to fit into their mouth. Constructing the roadbed itself was equally labor intensive, with a layer of broken stone followed by a binder layer of some kind, such as sand, lime or bitumen, then compacted with a roller. Some macadam roads involved multiple such layers. First used in London in 1820 and in the United States by 1823, macadam enjoyed extensive use throughout the nineteenth century and even into the first decades of the twentieth century due to its relative affordability. It remained in 1904 the most common type of pavement in some major cities, including Boston, New York and St. Louis (figure 4). Macadam, however, was far from permanent and prompted complaints about dust. In response, municipal engineers in each city experimented after 1850 with more expensive block, brick and cylinder pavements of wood, stone, asphalt and fired clay to solve the pavement problem.
Perhaps because of the relative ease with which it can be shaped and its availability in many regions across North America, wood enjoyed early widespread use as a pavement material beginning in the 1830s. Whether cut into planks or rectangular or hexagonal blocks, wood pavements required not only the labor of loggers to fell trees and workers at saw mills, but were the first North American pavements to require the craftsmanship of carpenters or masons at the point of installation (figure 5). The use of wood cylinders, such as those in Detroit (figure 6), simplified the shaping process, but necessitated careful sorting and placement of pieces of differing diameters to minimize the spaces between them. Wood pavements were smooth, affordable and “noiseless,” but struggled, however, with durability, even when later coated in creosote (figures 7 and 8), which limited their use in most cities to streets with relatively light vehicular traffic or where reducing noise was essential, such as by court houses.
Rectangular Belgian blocks, usually of granite but also of sandstone in the Midwest, emerged in the mid-nineteenth century as the pavement of choice for industrial areas where heavy traffic was most common (figure 9). Shaped by arduous hand chiseling, Belgian blocks are generally rectangular in shape and often vary in size, reflecting the manual-labor nature of its production – as seen in the paving of The Esplanade in Toronto in 1905 (figures 10 and 11). Introduced in the early 1880s, vitrified brick gradually became the most widespread and versatile pavement for both city streets and early automobile highways prior to the introduction of synthetic asphalt in the 1920s due to its combination of durability, smoothness and being waterproof (figure 12). Unlike all previous pavement types, vitrified brick was industrially produced in brick-making factories, which nonetheless required extensive human labor to collect the clay, form it into molds, place the clay into and remove it from ovens and stack for shipment. Its introduction coincided with the rising popularity of bicycles, whose promoters launched the Better Roads Movement to advocate for smoother pavement, which helped spread the use of vitrified brick by the end of the century.
The Labor of Street Paving
The labor-intensive work of installing block or brick pavements was the public face of the whole pavement production cycle. Municipal engineering or public works department annual reports, as well as pavement manuals, frequently included images of large crews of workers, a vivid testament to the significant financial and human investment permanent pavements represented. The ethnicity of the anonymous laborers varied, with crews of all African Americans (though usually under the supervision of a white foreman) being very common (figure 13). Yet, even in the era of Jim Crow with racial segregation, whites and blacks appear working alongside each other (figure 14). Minneapolis documented both mixed crews and all-white crews, including this 1907 view depicting workers installing pavement in decidedly cold weather, to judge by their heavy coats (figure 15). In Toronto, a range of ethnicities and an equal diversity of hat styles can be seen in the workers laying gravel pavement, likely macadam, on Bloor Street in 1903 (figure 16).
While most manual laborers documented in photos of paving projects were anonymous, occasionally a worker was so exceptional that he received acclaim and individual recognition. Arthur Hurd, a native of Louisiana, moved to Nebraska the early 1920s and quickly distinguished himself as “the fastest bricklayer in the state” (figure 17). To facilitate his bricklaying, “Ten men, five on each side, carried the bricks in tongs, five bricks to a tong, and piled them on either side of Hurd who laid them in the street.” In an interview with his widow, Dollie, in 1973, journalist John McNeil learned that “Being the fastest bricklayer in the state meant so much to Arthur Hurd that during the bricklaying season he changed his diet. Kneeling down and bending over to lay brick paving is hard work on a full stomach, so Arthur ate his big meal in the evenings. For breakfast he had only toast and a small bowl of cereal, and for lunch one sandwich and a hard-boiled egg.”
Likely the most famous American street brick layer of all time was James Garfield Brown, more commonly known as “Indian Jim.” A Native American born in the 1880s on the Oneida Reservation in central New York state, “Indian Jim” Brown (figures 18 and 19) garnered notable press attention during his lifetime and commemoration with a marker and a documentary film after his death. Already considered a “champion bricksetter,” he participated in a head-to-head competition in Olathe, Kansas, on September 12, 1925, against Frank Hoffman of Eldorado, Kansas, to help complete the Kansas City Road. Press coverage reported that “The work of the Indian, who was a discovery of The [Kansas City] Star, was a demonstration that brick-setting may be made an art, not a drudgery. When Indian Jim stretched up from his completed task to hear the cheers of the crowd in his ears, he knew he had been working.” Indian Jim set 46,644 bricks, 1,755 more than Hoffman, in six hours and 45 minutes. According to a monument in Olathe commemorating the day’s events, Senator Charles Curtis, Kansas Governor Ben Paulen and prominent local citizens laid ceremonial bricks as well.
No matter where he worked, Indian Jim attracted attention. Two years later, in Texas, the Pampa Daily News ran articles on him, including a “Paving Edition” of their paper on November 13, 1927, which extolled his prowess as the “world’s champion bricklayer” able to lay three bricks per second! In 1937, a WPA publicity film, “A Better Illinois,” documented an unnamed worker rapidly setting bricks from short stacked piles who may in fact be Indian Jim, with the narrator noting “one of the men engaged in this project is said to be the champion bricklayer of the world; at least he gives the younger hands something to think about” (figure 20). The filmmaker clearly had fun documenting his unusual expertise, speeding up the footage while the narrator wryly intones “this is about how he looks to the greenhorns.” By 1939 his reputation merited inclusion in a Ripley’s Believe or Not cartoon that appeared in newspapers around the country. The cartoon proclaimed “Indian Jim Brown – Full blood Oneida Indian – Lays 58,000 bricks a day – 207 tons. This is his daily average. He challenges any man” (figure 21). His reputation lives on: a marker erected in 2007 in Olathe commemorates Brown’s achievement in the completion of the Kansas City Road; and in 2011, filmmaker Gregory Sheffer cast the actor Raw Leiba to portray Indian Jim in a documentary short film called “The Bricklayer: Indian Jim and the Kansas City Olathe Highway,” part of a documentary series called “Olathe – The City Beautiful” that premiered at the AMC Kansas City Filmfest in April 2011; out of a total of 135 films it won first place in its division for “Best Heartland Documentary Short film.”
Human hands also played a critical role in keeping streets clean. New, permanent street pavements were seen as critical to the progress and health of a modern city, but so too was street cleaning. At a time when horses and other draft animals still filled the streets and regular residential garbage collection did not yet exist, trash, animal urine and excrement, and even dead animals could quickly make newly paved streets objectionable, if not a health hazard. Recognition of the human labor involved in street cleaning appears in a unique graphic using broom sizes to represent the amount of labor required based on the relative cost of cleaning different kinds of pavement in New York (figure 22). No city took greater pride in their street cleaning crews than Detroit, which introduced its highly influential “White Wings Brigade” in 1897 – a force of fifty white men dressed in white suits, each accompanied by a pushcart with a receptacle (figure 23). Leaders in the city’s Public Works department boasted that “Detroit is one of the cleanest of cities. Broad avenues of asphalt and brick and lovely residence streets of cedar block would be given scarcely a passing notice by the visitors were it not for the fact that brush and broom in the hands of expert workers make the streets as scrupulously clean as it is possible for them to be.” The idea immediately proved successful, spawning similar crews within that first year in twenty other cities. By 1902, the brigade had grown to 100 men and continued to be proudly illustrated in the pages of reports. As late as 1923, the city of Los Angeles used the same term “White Wings” to describe their street cleaning workers.
The arrival of synthetic asphalt in the 1920s gradually curtailed the use of bricks or blocks for new streets, and most old streets disappeared under blacktop before long. Yet, an appreciation for old, hand-made pavements helped some communities keep their old streets intact. For example, streets in Wilmette, Illinois, saw their bricks “Relayed by WPA” (as noted by embedded plaques) – a potentially unique project of that Depression-era government make-work program that involved workers inverting the bricks so that their worn tops were placed face down (figures 13 and 24). One intersection involves obliquely oriented brick rows meeting at a large triangle, displaying a remarkably high level of care and attention to detail. Multiple varied iterations of similar triangular patterns exist around eight of the squares in downtown Savannah, where T-shaped intersections prompted their installation. Early twentieth-century asphalt blocks – a historic paving material that survives in very few cities – form the triangles by having blocks rotated 45 degrees to keep them perpendicular to the turning wheels of two-way traffic. Although movement around the squares is now one-way only (like a round-about), the city maintains the triangles, which require careful attention to detail, as can be seen in the various shades of blocks, with the darker ones being oldest (figure 25).
The rise of the historic preservation movement nationwide for buildings in the 1950s and 60s spread to pavement preservation and restoration in a few cities by the 1970s. The City of Tampa has been a leading city in protecting and maintaining its vitrified brick streets. The restoration of a small section of Morgan Street in 1974 garnered newspaper coverage, which lamented that “although brick-laying probably is a lost art by now, these men chiseled, paced and pounded the bricks with astonishing efficiency.” Like the brick layers of the 1920s, most of the workers are anonymous in such reports, but one street restoration master craftsman, Woodrow Pippin of Tampa, enjoyed a level of recognition that recalls Arthur Hurd and Indian Jim Brown. A 1978 Tampa Times article profiling Pippin characterized him “Like some whiz-bang mathematician sizing a row of five-digit figures… with the eyes of a calculating mathematician.” In Philadelphia, the National Park Service’s restoration of cobblestone pavement on Library Street in the 1970s as part of the Independence Mall project evidently privileged craftsmanship over authenticity, with large pavement stones neatly arranged down the middle of the roadway and much smaller stones laid in elegant sets of arcs along the sides (figure 26), rather than the random irregularity of historic cobblestone pavement, as in Alexandria.
As more cities consider restoring brick and block streets, skilled craftsmen and supportive crews of laborers will be needed once again, a vivid reminder of the central role manual labor has played in the creation of our transportation networks.
Regarding New York, see Niko Koppel, “Restoring New York Streets to Their Bumpier Pasts,” The New York Times (July 18, 2010); regarding Philadelphia, see “Historic Street Paving Thematic District” nomination form, Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, 1998, Description section, page 2, accessed June 10, 2018, from https://www.phila.gov/historical/PDF/Historic%20Paving%20Thematic%20District.pdf.
A marker at the intersection of Princess Street and North Washington Street reads “In the 1790’s many Alexandria streets were paved with cobblestones. According to legend, Hessian soldiers provided the labor to cobble Princess Street.”
W. M. Gillespie, A manual of the principles and practice of road-making: comprising the location, construction, and improvement of roads (common, macadam, paved, plank, etc.); and railroads (New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1848), 216-17.
“1823 – First American Macadam Road,” The Paintings of Carl Rakeman, U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. Accessed April 25, 2018 from http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/rakeman/1823.htm.
John W. Alvord, “A Report to the Street Paving Committee of the Commercial Club on The Street Paving Problem of Chicago” (Chicago: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, Printers, 1904), exhibit no. 2. Macadam represented 50.1, 30.1 and 28.35 percent of all street surfaces in Boston, New York and St. Louis, respectively.
Daily Morning News [Savannah], October 25, 1859, p.2, col. 1.
An early use of this term is “A Noiseless Pavement,” Daily Alta California (September 16, 1876), 1.
John McNeil, “NP brick streets have special meaning to Dollie,” North Platte Telegraph (May 23, 1973).
“Olathe Celebrated a New Brick Road Saturday—and `Indian Jim’ Wins,” The Olathe Mirror (September 17, 1925), 5, reprinted in Pat Davis, “’Indian Jim’s’ victory recalled as K.C. brick road is removed,” The Daily News [Olathe, KS] (October 22, 1971), 6A.
Mike Cox, Texas Panhandle Tales (History Press Library Editions, 2012).
“Twenty-fourth Annual Report of the Board of Public Works of the City of Detroit, 1897-8,” in Annual Reports of the Several Municipal Commissions, Boards and Officers of the City of Detroit, for the Year 1897-8 (Detroit: The Richmond & Backus Company, 1898), 48 (Detroit Public Library).
“Twenty-Eighth Annual Report of the Board of Public Works of the City of Detroit, 1901-1902,” in Annual Reports of the Several Municipal Commissions, Boards and Officers of the City of Detroit, for the Year 1901-1902 (Detroit: The Richmond & Backus Company, 1903), 60 and accompanying image between pages 57 and 59 (Detroit Public Library).
John Griffen, “Annual Report of the Engineering Department of the City of Los Angeles, July 1st, 1922, to June 30th, 1923,” 19 (City Archives and Record Center, Los Angeles).
“Streets of Brick,” The Tampa Tribune (August 16, 1974), 6-Metro. Copy in the “Tampa-Streets / (1800’s – 1970’s)” vertical file, Special Collections, Tampa Public Library.
Dale Wilson, “Brick laying doesn’t put them on easy street,” The Tampa Times (June 5, 1978), section B Copy in the “Tampa-Streets / (1800’s – 1970’s)” vertical file, Special Collections, Tampa Public Library.
Robin B. Williams, Ph.D., chairs the Architectural History department at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His research focuses on the history of modern architecture and cities, currently focusing on the evolution of street and sidewalk pavement in North America. He is the lead author of Buildings of Savannah (University of Virginia Press, 2016), the inaugural city guide in the Society of Architectural Historians’ Buildings of the United States series.
Ashley Parham was eighteen-years old and had just graduated from high school in 2009, when she went to pick her younger brother up from football practice. She was driving around the parking lot looking for a space when she accidentally bumped into another car. The minor collision was just significant enough to deploy the airbag. But something went wrong. Not only did the airbag fail to inflate correctly, it also threw metal shrapnel at Parham, slicing her carotid artery, leaving her bleeding to death. When police found her, they thought she may have been murdered. Instead, she was likely the first victim of defective airbags produced by the Takata corporation that, in time, led to one of the largest recalls in history.
In April and May of 2013, BMW and a range of Japanese automakers recalled millions of vehicles containing these airbags. A year later, Ford, Chrysler, and several other companies announced that they too were recalling millions upon millions of cars. Eventually, these defective airbags would be linked to at least 12 deaths and hundreds of injuries in the United States alone. Over 60 million cars would be recalled before it was all over, and in 2017, Takata folded in bankruptcy.
Later investigations uncovered that some automakers knew the airbags could be defective for more than a decade. This discovery led some people to ask, how could defective technologies that violated federal law be sold for so long without the authorities becoming aware? Answering that question requires us to think about all of the work regulators do to enforce safety standards—work that is at best imperfect and whose successes and failures often hinge on luck. Regulators and contract firms that work for the U.S. government regularly conduct crash tests and other enforcement activities to ensure that automobiles sold in the United States live up to existing rules. These activities take place out of sight. They involve largely anonymous individuals. They are messy, on-going work that is never done. And yet the safety of the transportation systems around us depend on such mundane, nameless labor. How do we bring it into view?
Crash Tests as Necessary Work
One answer is that activities come into view when something goes wrong. When things go awry in regulation—when we discover that products do not conform to safety rules—regulators and others create paper trails that we can use to reconstruct enforcement efforts. A safety enforcement and vehicle recall effort involving Fiat cars that the U.S. federal safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), conducted from 1969 to 1971, helps illustrate some general structures of regulatory work.
On September 24, 1969, four NHTSA staff members traveled to Los Angeles, California, to witness crash tests run by the Digitek Corporation, a private firm that did contract work for the agency. They planned on testing a 1969 Fiat 850 Sedan, but their purchasing agent had accidentally sent an 850 Coupe instead. They decided to crash the car anyway, and the test did not go well for the Fiat Coupe. It badly violated a federal safety standard. This test—which was a matter of luck—began an investigation that lasted for a year and led to Fiat recalling thousands of vehicles.
Instrumenting a Car for Crashing
The Fiat car had violated Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 204—Steering Control Rearward Displacement. Standard 204 set a threshold for the distance that the steering wheel could “displace” backwards towards the driver’s body in a front-end collision. The basic test for Standard 204 involved driving a car into an immobile wall at thirty miles per hour and measuring the rearward displacement of the steering wheel.
In the picture above, which was found in federal records, we can see a tester demonstrating how cars are instrumented for testing under Standard 204. Preparing the car for testing required a great deal of labor. In this case, staff members at Digitek attached a measuring device to the steering wheel and an anchor in the back windowsill. They removed both front seats and mounted metal frames that held a high-speed camera and the measurement grid that can be seen behind the steering wheel. The high-speed camera recorded the steering wheel moving in front of the grid, as car smashed into the crash barrier. Finally, when the car was successfully instrumented, they crashed the car into the barrier and began the long process of examining the resulting data, including the high-speed film, before preparing a report on the test.
Standard 204 limited rearward displacement of the steering wheel to 5 inches. In the initial test, the Fiat Coupe’s steering wheel displaced 6.75 inches. In a later test, another Fiat Coupe’s steering wheel displaced backwards 9.21 or nearly twice the limit. The steering wheel moved backwards so far it left the frame of the high-speed camera. It would have badly injured or killed the driver going into his or her upper-chest or head, possibly even leading to decapitation.
How to Standardize a Wall
Crashing cars may be the most dramatic aspect of federal regulatory enforcement, but the vast majority of enforcement involves white collar labor: filling out forms and producing paperwork, attending meetings and making phone calls, writing, editing, and publishing reports. When NHTSA staff members returned from observing the crash test in California, they began the work of examining the results and producing the documents that would eventually support their case against Fiat.
Federal regulators were faced with a question: Fiat had claimed in official filings that its cars met US federal safety standards, so what had gone wrong? The investigation quickly came to focus on how Fiat had done its own tests at its headquarters in Turin, Italy—most directly, the company’s failure to follow federal standards properly.
Technical standards are often complex. U.S. federal automotive safety standards brought together a variety of standards from other places to define how testers should do their work. In this way, regulatory enforcement depended on concatenations—or long chains—of paperwork developed over years, in this case, involving both committees within the Society of Automotive Engineers and regulators within federal agencies. Standard 204 included a standard from the Society of Automotive Engineers, Recommended Practice J850, which standardized the dimensions and characteristics automotive crash test barriers should have. It mandated that crash test barriers should be concrete walls backed 200,000 pounds of compacted earth or the equivalent thereof. The key point is that the barrier should be immobile, pushing all of the force in the crash test into the crashing vehicle itself.
The Fiat cars were failing this test dramatically. Regulators found that, because Fiat’s cars had rear engines with trunks in front, steering wheels moved upwards at an extreme angle during crash tests, directly at a driver’s head. The injuries in such an accident would have been gruesome and catastrophic.
Fiat’s Non-Conforming Testing Grounds
The regulatory investigation uncovered that Fiat’s crash test barrier and, therefore, its tests did not come anywhere near U.S. government rules. The issue was that Fiat did not have a dedicated testing facility. Instead, Fiat’s leaders decided to use the runways at the company’s private airport as its test area. However, they still wanted to use the airport as an airport, flying in and out of it with private jets for company business. Having crash test barriers on the runway would be a problem for planes. For this reason, the labor of testing worked differently at Fiat than it was supposed to according to the U.S. government: testers at Fiat built temporary crash test walls out of concrete cubes. They would use forklifts to form a wall with the cubes, and then take the wall back down after the tests. U.S. regulators found that the temporary walls in fact moved during the tests, thereby absorbing some of the energy during impact. Fiat’s cars had, in effect, “passed” its own tests because Fiat employees were doing the tests wrong. In 1970, NHTSA pushed Fiat to recall and modify 9,000 vehicles which had been sold in the United States, and the agency fined the company $100,000, the largest fine to that date. Newspapers, like the Wall Street Journal, hailed the fine as a success for the federal agency with titles like, “Italian Auto Firm Allegedly Didn’t Meet Federal Steering-Column Standards; Fine is Highest Yet.”
Conclusion—Keeping Dangerous Technologies Off the Road
In the end, NHTSA staff members found that, because Fiat had done the tests incorrectly, it had claimed its steering-columns to be “safe” when they were quite dangerous. So-called “energy-absorbing steering-columns” had existed in the US since the early 1960s, and Fiat had its own version, which featured three-segments that collapsed into each other upon impact. However, the company had continued importing steering-columns that consisted of single steel bars, which sometimes impaled drivers during frontal collisions.
The Fiat case has several important lessons to teach us. First and most simply, it draws our attention to the crucial, ordinary work of regulatory enforcement—the labor of ensuring technologies live up to our legal expectations. Second, the Fiat case shows us how regulatory enforcement involves not only seeing if technologies conform to standards but guaranteeing that testers at different times and different places and within different organizations follow standardized procedures. It’s about standardizing the testing work as well as the regulated object. Fiat had failed to follow procedure. And, finally, the Fiat case reminds us that budgets for regulatory agencies and other government organizations matter. Enforcement and testing cost money. When we cut federal budgets, as we are doing again these past few years, we do fewer tests and have less bandwidth to enforce rules. The chances go up for dangerous technologies to be sold on the market without being discovered.
Safety Standards Engineers to Chief of Validation Division, “Trip Report, September 24-27, 1969, to Digitek Corporation, Los Angeles, California,” October 7, 1969, 1, General records, Records of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 1966-91, Record Group 416, National Archives at College Park, MD.
Robert Gardner, “CIR Background Synopsis,” October 7, 1969, General records, Records of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 1966-91, Record Group 416, National Archives at College Park, MD.
Robert H. Gardner, Safety Standards Engineer, to Chief, Validation Division and Chief, Vehicles Branch, “Trip Report, October 29-31, 1969, to Dynamic Science, Phoenix, Arizona, and Digitek Corporation, Los Angeles, California,” November 24, 1969, 1.
Federal Register, Vol. 32 (February 3, 1967), 2414.
Digitek Corporation, “Vehicle Test Report FMVSS 204 1969 Fiat Model 850 VIN 0242771,” November 5, 1969.
Letter, Robert Brenner, Acting Director, to V. A. Garibaldi, President, Fiat Motor Company, “Subject: Fiat Model 850 Coupe,” October 29, 1969, 1.
Memorandum, David E. Wells, Chief Counsel, to F. C. Turner, Federal Highway Administrator, through Douglas W. Toms, Director, NHSB, “Fiat Civil Penalty 850 Sedan and Coupe,” March 3, 1970, 1.
Lee Vinsel is an assistant professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech and a co-organizer of The Maintainers, an international, interdisciplinary research network focused on maintenance, repair, and mundane labor with things. His book, Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States, will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in spring 2019.
Return to People-Works: The Labor of Transport.
Massimo Moraglio’s new book, Driving Modernity: Technology, Experts, Politics, and Fascist Motorways, 1922–1943, will be published by Berghahn in February 2017.
Summary: On March 26th, 1923, in a formal ceremony, construction of the Milan–Alpine Lakes autostrada officially began, the preliminary step toward what would become the first European motorway. That Benito Mussolini himself participated in the festivities indicates just how important the project was to Italian Fascism. Driving Modernity recounts the twisting fortunes of the autostrada, which—alongside railways, aviation, and other forms of mobility—Italian authorities hoped would spread an ideology of technological nationalism. It explains how Italy ultimately failed to realize its mammoth infrastructural vision, addressing the political and social conditions that made a coherent plan of development impossible.
We welcome Irene Anastasiadou, Carlos Lopez Galviz, Julia Hildebrand, Robin Kellermann, Victor Marquez, Hiroki Shin, M. Luisa Sousa, and Dhan Zunino Singh to the Executive Committee and congratulate them on their election. Read More
Transantiago, Human Devices, and the Dream of a World-Class Society (MIT Press).
By Sebastián Ureta
In this book, Sebastián Ureta argues that humans, both individually and collectively, are always at the heart of infrastructure policy; the issue is how they are brought into it. Ureta develops his argument through the case of Transantiago, a massive public transportation project in the city of Santiago, proposed in 2000, launched in 2007, and in 2012 called “the worst public policy ever implemented in our country” by a Chilean government spokesman.
This special issue of Technology and Culture explores the ways in which road use and road safety have changed since the 1880s, including how different road users interacted with each other, technology, regulation, engineering, design, and the built environment. Together the articles provide a look at a variety of approaches across North America, Europe, and Africa and at different road users such as pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. While most of the papers individually consider a single national example, the picture that is built up across the issue allows comparisons between countries to demonstrate how road safety and automobility technologies are historically and culturally contingent. The issue concludes with a commentary from a prominent policymaker in the hope that better understanding of how accidents, safety, and risks are co-constructed and co-produced can offer insights into how we might reduce deaths and injuries in the future.
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