Yesterday, I finally finished Fighting Traffic, Peter D. Norton’s book that outlines the battle over the United States’ transportation system during the early decades of the 20th century. In it, Norton outlines how a diverse coalition of auto interests, up to and including Commerce Secretary-cum-President of the United States Herbert Hoover, waged a coordinated campaign to reshape this country’s social, political, and physical infrastructure to usher in the age of the automobile.
Early on, “motordom” (as these individuals ultimately dubbed themselves) faced stiff opposition from the general public, regulatory officials, newspapers, and police as this dangerous vehicle usurped streets from traditional users, namely pedestrians and streetcars. A key component of this transition was the adoption and calculated use of the term “jaywalker,” which branded pedestrians that clung fast to their traditional rights to the street in the face of new restrictions as clueless bumpkins responsible for any harm that befell them.
But victory for motordom was far from guaranteed. For several years public opinion was firmly against cars, which many saw as unnecessary, inherently dangerous machines. A key turning point in this fight was the 1923 Cincinnati speed governor war, when residents tried to pass a referendum requiring all cars be equipped with a device restricting their maximum speed to 25 miles per hour. Seeing the threat this posed to their industry, car interests united for one of the first times to kill this initiative at the ballot box. Motordom was emerging as a new political force.
Realizing that speed was the primary feature that made the care an attractive transportation mode, auto groups worked to divorce the concept of safety from speed. The real threat to public safety was not speeding, they claimed, it was a small group of “reckless” drivers. Shifting responsibility from the machine to the individual also gave them space to blame reckless pedestrians for their own deaths. Good citizens followed the newly imposed traffic laws.
All of this is just stage setting for one of my favorite anecdotes in the book:
Even before the Cincinnati speed governor war, the [American Automobile Association] sought to redirect stigma and blame “the driver who terrorizes pedestrians and careful drivers alike.” In 1922, the association offered $25 – in gold – to the person who submitted an epithet for such motorists equivalent in its sting to “jaywalker.” Existing derisive names (such as “joy-rider” and “speed maniac”) implicitly linked speed and danger; the AAA needed words that left open the possibilities of safe speed and slow carelessness. The winning suggestion was “flivverboob.” Yet publicity for this word was nowhere near as extensive as that for “jaywalker,” and it never caught on.
That “flivverboob” never caught on as an insult is a damn shame. It has all the trappings of 1920s-era nonsense, and it’s just plain fun as hell to say. I wholeheartedly endorse bringing it back, even despite its dubious origins.
So, fellow cyclists and pedestrians (and defensive drivers, for that matter), the next time that some maniac behind the wheel nearly runs you off the road or t-bones you at an intersection, feel free to lob the f-word at him. But, this time, make it “flivverboob.”