Historical Social Research

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Kai Nowak: Teaching Self-Control. Road Safety and Traffic Education in Postwar Germany [Abstract]

In the 1950s, the Federal Republic of Germany had to cope with a situation referred to at the time as “Verkehrskrise” (traffic crisis). In a relatively short time span, the number of cars on German roads had increased rapidly, as well as the number of accidents and fatalities. Correspondingly, efforts in traffic education were heavily intensified. By examining public campaigns and expert discourse, the article explores how the notion of self-control gained more and more acceptance among road safety experts, and eventually helped to establish a paradigm change in Western German traffic education. In the course of the three decades from the 1950s to the 1970s, the focus shifted from enforcement by appealing to reason and disciplinary endeavors to the internalization of adequate behavior on the road and competence behind the wheel. Traffic education aimed to motivate road users to regulate themselves and to improve their ability to adapt to traffic situations. It tried to establish a specialized “seventh sense” as the core element of vernacular risk practices on the road. The notion of self-control, as implemented in public campaigns and other road safety activities, relied on societal models and certain notions of social and political order. These included, in particular, traditional family and gender roles, Christian religious values, and democratic freedom. Therefore, road traffic can be regarded as a cultural concept with road safety as a discursive arena. In that sense, road safety does not appear as a static state but was in a state of flux just as traffic itself was. Thus it required self-control and routinized yet flexible practices to improve the resilience of each individual road user to the risk of accidents as well as the resilience of the traffic system itself.

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