Tom MacWright

I read Policing the Open Road by Sarah A. Seo on


Wow. This book hits hard.

The popularization of cars changed everything about policing – how police dress, act, what they’re able to do, the number of police, the number of laws, everything. Seo focused most on how the existence of cars as a middle ground between public and private space have affected the Fourth Amendment: this one.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The middle section of Policing goes deep on legal basis and process and judge opinions: it’s brilliantly written, but for non-lawyers like myself was pretty challenging.

Seo doesn’t editorialize that much – you can tell that she is rooting for a set of laws based on simpler and more universal principles, and mourning the loss of privacy that came from the car era. I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with that viewpoint from page to page. There are so many tensions that this book so eloquently describes: the connection between procedural limits on policing and selective enforcement, between public safety and individual privacy, between driving as a privilege or as a right.

Cars are bad, as I keep saying. But they’re everywhere, and it’s really hard to undo all the changes we’ve made because of cars.

The one thing I wish that Policing focused more on was non-drivers, though admittedly this is part of a more recent trend of urbanization. As much as car-dominance is a shift in power and freedom for drivers and police, it’s a shift away from those who choose not to drive. As Charles Reich described in his writing about driving-as-freedom:

In the Anglo-American tradition, property performed the function of maintaining independence, dignity and pluralism in society by creating zones within which the majority has to yield to the owner.

It makes me think that all pedestrians and cyclists and trains and buses ever do is yield - yield their safety, comfort, privacy, and space to drivers.