30. The Automotive Police State

By October 31, 2019 Uncategorized

For a century, the automobile has been sold to Americans as the ultimate freedom machine. In her groundbreaking new book, “Policing the Open Road,” historian and legal scholar Sarah Seo explodes that myth. Seo shows how modern policing evolved in lockstep with the development of the car. And that rather than giving Americans greater freedom, the massive body of traffic law required to facilitate mass motoring helped to establish a kind of automotive police state. Is a car a private, personal space deserving Fourth Amendment protection from “unreasonable searches and seizures?” Or is a car something else entirely? It’s a question that courts have struggled with for decades, ultimately leaving it up to the police to use their own discretion, often with horrifying results, especially for minorities. In this revelatory conversation with TWOC co-host Aaron Naparstek, Seo offers an entirely new way of looking at the impact of the automobile on American life, law and culture.

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A full transcript of this episode is available here.


Buy Sarah Seo’s book, “Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom.”


Was the Automotive Era a Terrible Mistake? By Nathan Heller. (The New Yorker)

How Cars Transformed Policing (Boston Review)

On the Road Police Power Has Few Limits (The Atlantic)

Stopped, Ticketed, Fined: The Pitfalls of Driving While Black in Ferguson (New York Times)

Why we can — and must — create a fairer system of traffic enforcement. Its discretionary nature has left it ripe for abuse (Washington Post)

Driving (and walking) While Black: Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Michael Brown and The Ferguson Report.

Follow Sarah Seo on Twitter.

Sarah Seo, Associate Professor of Law, University of Iowa College of Law.

This episode was edited by Jaime Kaiser and recorded at Great City Post and the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio.

Find us on Twitter: @TheWarOnCars, Aaron Naparstek @Naparstek, Doug Gordon @BrooklynSpoke, Sarah Goodyear @buttermilk1.

Drop us a line: [email protected]




  • Ben says:

    Another great episode!
    About half way through, Aaron asks “Is there something about the car that makes respectable citizens into sociopaths?” Sarah says it’s not her discipline, but it is a really interesting question, and I’m just thinking, “this could be a whole episode.” The psychology of cars… we hear a lot about how social media and smartphones are affecting our brains, but what about cars? I’ve read a couple of interesting articles on cars and loneliness, but it would be fun to hear you do a deep dive on the topic. Maybe you’ve already had idea… but just in case, now you definitely have it.

  • […] The Race to Create the Autonomous Car.) Mike recommends The War on Cars podcast, in particular the episode with legal scholar Sarah Seo about how private car ownership has created an “automotive police […]