Quantifying Accidents: Cars, Statistics, and Unintended Consequences in the Construction of Social Problems Over Time

Abstract

This paper investigates the potential effects of a single cultural means of claimsmaking—quantification—on the construction of a social problem through time. By analyzing salient historical uses of statistics in public debates on traffic accidents in the United States, the study seeks to advance the understanding of the role played by numerical claims in the broader dynamics of problem evolution and development. Specifically, key employments of numbers by early automobile clubs, the private insurance industry, safety movement and establishment, and printed media are closely traced and interrelated to flesh out their impacts on dominant representations of the issue over the long term. While numerical claimsmaking produced divergent, often contradictory effects on the construction of the problem, I argue that figures ultimately contributed to the gradual waning of the moralist and political zest that characterized much of the claimsmaking activities on the issue in the first half of the twentieth century. The argument provides one explanation of how traffic accidents can come to be defined in contemporary society as a “necessary evil”—a regrettable yet largely unalterable price to pay for the benefits of the automobile. To the extent that many of these quantification effects are unintended, they are linked to both the nature of statistical argumentation employed in this case and its institutional contexts.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Since contextual-constructionism assumes that social problems acquire meaning in particular contexts and historical contingencies, the analyst taking this positing implicitly agrees that the social construct can be assessed against some objective reality. For more on this position see the works of Manis (1974, 1976).

  2. 2.

    The breakdown of editorials per decade is: 1900-1909 = 16, 1910-1919 = 21, 1920-1929 = 68, 1930-1939 = 51, 1940-1949 = 68, 1950-1959 = 68, 1960-1969 = 33, 1970-1979 = 19, 1980-1989 = 17.

  3. 3.

    The term “automobility,” which refers to the socio-technical system of the automobile, will be used throughout the paper. While the word has generated a number of definitions (see Seiler 2008, 4–6), it is usually understood as the material (cars, fuel, roads, concrete, asphalt), ideological (freedom, progress, individualism, power), and experiential (speed, thrill, control) apparatus that encompasses, and is reproduced by, the automobile. By adopting this term the article makes clear its focus on the relation of statistics to all motorized road traffic (i.e., private cars, buses, taxis, trucks). While I am aware of important nuances between these various means of transport in producing a different kind of sociability and experience (for example, private vs. public transport) (on these distinctions see the recent edited volumes by Miller 2001; Featherstone et al. 2005; Conley and Tigar McLaren 2009), accounting for these differences in terms of the impact of numbers is beyond the scope of this article as my central concern is with the effects of quantification within the uniform logics created by the system of automobility. These include official and informal “rules of the road,” binding infrastructures of roads and fuels, the social organization of space that promotes motor vehicle use, the ideology of the motor vehicle, and the subjectivities engendered through automobility. Indeed, as Packer (2008) has demonstrated nicely, although motorcyclist, truckers, and hitchhikers experience motoring in different ways, what they have in common is being singled out, in one historical moment or another, as posing a threat to the order of the road and thus requiring certain kinds of social control. Additionally, claimsmakers I analyzed here usually did not make distinctions between various kinds of motor vehicles, but instead talked of “traffic accidents,” “automobile accidents,” “death on the highway” and other general categories.

  4. 4.

    For one, private underwriters supplied a considerable bulk of statistics for much of the NSC’s forecasts as many of its projections drew from life tables generated by corporate insurers. On the personal level, prominent NSC experts who as head of the statistics division in the 1920s and 1930s initiated the organization’s routine of predictions, held at the same time leading positions as statisticians in private insurance companies. The two were Frederick Crum from Prudential and Louis Dublin from Metropolitan Life Insurance.

  5. 5.

    While every American president from the 1920s onward had treated accidents as an urgent national crisis and either convened federal conferences to address the problem or discussed it in a national speech, those who came after Lyndon Johnson have not framed the issue in such terms.

  6. 6.

    This trend runs in contrast to the structural critiques of automobile use in environmental discourse. While in ecological circles the cost of the car focuses on its broader unsustainable consequences such as pollution and climate change, inefficient land use, economic disparities and access to cars, and community breakdown, death and injury as a result of traffic accidents is not typically considered an “environmental” problem, but one of “safety.” And while ecological movements have often advanced more radical alternatives to harmful technologies, safety discourse has opted for technological fixes within the existing systems (more on this see Conley and Tigar McLaren 2009, 6).

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Vardi, I. Quantifying Accidents: Cars, Statistics, and Unintended Consequences in the Construction of Social Problems Over Time. Qual Sociol 37, 345–367 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-014-9280-1

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Keywords

  • Social problems
  • Quantification
  • Statistics
  • Contextual-constructionism
  • Unintended consequences
  • Accidents
  • Automobility