Osiris: Psychologists, Automobile Safety, and the Emergence of the Accident-Prone Driver

The recently released 2018 volume of Osiris, dedicated to
Science and Capitalism: Entangled Histories,” includes a piece that may interest AHP readers. Details below.

““Safe Driving Depends on the Man at the Wheel”: Psychologists and the Subject of Auto Safety, 1920–55,” by Lee Vinsel. Abstract:

In the first decades of the twentieth century, deaths from automobile accidents quickly mounted, and influential figures, like Herbert Hoover, sought ways to control this icon of industrial capitalism and its users. These early regulatory efforts opened up the new field of automotive safety, a crowded market for ideas full of both buyers and sellers of potential solutions. This essay examines the 1920s and 1930s, as one profession, psychology, entered and sought to influence this emerging field, which thoroughly entangled science and capitalism. It describes how psychologists used a committee in the National Research Council to find positions of power. It argues that the psychologists’ successes and failures were largely determined through a dialectical process between the psychologist’s skills, other powerful professions, like engineering, and available patronage and funding. The psychologists’ greatest success came through positing a novel entity—the accident-prone driver. Yet by the late 1930s, the most influential psychologists had turned against this idea, criticizing less prestigious colleagues who promoted it to industry and government. Established psychologists worried mostly that self-interested, junior colleagues were overselling their ideas and aligning too closely with corporate capitalism, thereby undermining the young profession’s already tenuous credibility.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.