How Vehicular Intimidation Became the Norm

The use of cars and trucks to bully or harm protesters is part of a deadly problem: Americans forgive lots of violent offenses committed behind the wheel.

Trump supporters block traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge on November 1, 2020 in Tarrytown, New York.
On November 1, Trump supporters blocked traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York. (Stephanie Keith / Getty)

In Texas on Friday, dozens of vehicles driven by supporters of President Donald Trump formed a “Trump Train” on Interstate 35, and several of them surrounded a Joe Biden campaign bus, slowing it and attempting to force it off the road. One viral video shows a truck with pro-Trump and Blue Lives Matter banners striking a Biden staffer’s vehicle. After the FBI announced an investigation of the coordinated operation, Trump thanked the perpetrators, declaring, “In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong.” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida added his support, asking spectators at a Trump rally, “Did you see it? All the cars on the road, we love what they did.”

The I-35 event was one of many this weekend in which convoys of Trump supporters demonstrated on the nation’s highways, in some cases stopping traffic on major interstates. In embracing the Texas operation, which led to the cancellation of three Democratic events, the Trump camp contributed to the mainstreaming of political intimidation in the United States. But beyond the president’s support, participants in the Trump Train had another reason to think they could get away with such a deed: Our legal system forgives few acts of violence so readily as those committed with a motor vehicle—even those done on purpose.

More and more, political tensions in the United States are culminating in physical attacks. Largely in reaction to racial-justice demonstrations and pandemic-related public-health mandates, extremists have taken to the streets with military-style weapons, bulletproof vests, and other tactical gear. Some have shot protesters to death in melees. Others converged with guns in hand on the Michigan capitol; some of them, the FBI later alleged, conspired to kidnap and possibly murder the state’s governor.

Still other militants have chosen a different weapon: vehicles. In a 102-day period following George Floyd’s death in the custody of Minneapolis police, the terrorism researcher Ari Weil identified 104 vehicle-ramming attacks that had been committed against protesters. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the perpetrators were extremists on the far right whose acts of violence were cheered online. Police officers have also driven their vehicles—in some cases SUVs or cruisers fitted with bull bars—into protesters around the country. A few attacks have allegedly been perpetrated by left-wing extremists, too. The preeminent site of violent political conflict this year has been the street, and cars have joined firearms as weapons of choice.

Unlike people who commit gun violence, drivers who hit people benefit from a certain ambiguity: Did the driver mean to run over those protesters—or just not see them? Was the driver acting out of fear? Why were the protesters in the street in the first place?  In the United States, drivers may face little accountability even for fatal crashes. Even in deep-blue New York City, one study found that more than 93 percent of hit-and-run drivers who killed their victims were not charged with any type of homicide; far more often, the incident isn’t fully investigated, the driver simply can’t be identified, or authorities treat the crash as a traffic infraction and issue a traffic ticket or file no charges at all.

A century ago, regulators, lawmakers, and judges began looking at the hard work of separating innocent mistakes from deliberate vehicular attacks, and blinked, essentially giving up on this category of problem. As I have previously argued, our laws do not establish clear, practical ways of managing reckless driving, and the result has been the creation of a deadly Wild West on American roadways that exists outside of partisanship.

Shootings and car crashes are quintessentially American ways to die. Each now claims about 37,000 American lives a year. In both categories, the United States suffers by far the highest per capita fatality rate of any rich nation. Both the products involved—guns and cars—promise self-reliance, are marketed as masculine, and endow private citizens with the power to effortlessly kill their fellow Americans. Each product enjoys support from both major political parties and is sustained by political structures that favor those who own it at the expense of those who do not. America’s legal culture privileges drivers over the 100 million people in America who do not have a driver’s license (and millions more who do but don’t own a car).

For all the shortcomings of U.S. firearms regulation, America’s legal system is better equipped to deal with attacks that use firearms than those that use cars. It’s true that although guns are not federally regulated as consumer products, vehicles are methodically regulated for emissions and occupant safety (though, revealingly, not that of pedestrians). However, gun ownership is subject to a raft of restrictions, including the purchaser’s prior convictions and mental-health status, and (in some places) the weapon’s magazine capacity. While Americans disagree deeply over gun control, that debate occurs amid a consensus that—beyond the narrow defense of justification—the use of guns against other people cannot be tolerated, because of the product’s obvious danger to human life. The mere presence of a gun during the commission of a crime, even one that isn’t discharged or displayed, can add years to an offender’s sentence.

The regulation of vehicular use is more variable. Operator’s licenses are issued upon examinations whose minimal difficulty often bears little relationship to the risk of the activity. Traffic rules, such as speed limits, are generally insincere; in other words, they’re not enforced even though their terms are unmistakable. And while intentional homicide with a motor vehicle may be no less serious an offense than that committed with a firearm or other weapon, authorities—including police, prosecutors, and state driver’s-license agencies—have historically been very lenient toward motorists who endanger or take human life. Juries have too, suggesting that this problem has deep roots. Absent unequivocal evidence of malign intent or intoxication, a driver can generally escape serious consequences by claiming to have hit someone—a protester, a random pedestrian, or another vehicle—by accident.

The lax regulatory treatment lavished on cars forgives the inattentive driver and has enabled the high levels of automobility that 20th-century elites deemed desirable. But as this year’s events show, it also provides a ready-made excuse for deliberate assailants, a scenario that the creators of the podcast Freakonomics have described as the perfect crime. Drivers who would use their vehicle for the sake of political intimidation are in luck when authorities look the other way. The city manager of New Braunfels, Texas, near where the Trump Train operation took place, stated that after receiving reports “of the Trump Train following the Biden/Harris campaign bus,” his city’s police department “responded and did not observe any traffic violations.” Imagine a similarly unconcerned statement following a gunshot that caused no physical injuries but nevertheless was intended to disrupt a presidential campaign just days before the election.

Similarly, this year’s vehicle-ramming attacks have created victims whom law enforcement can’t or won’t show were targeted intentionally. Violent extremism is a cause of these attacks—they wouldn’t happen without it—but America’s hands-off approach to regulating vehicles and driving provides an ongoing opportunity for them.

Of the 104 incidents that Weil analyzed this year, he was able to assess the driver’s conduct as malicious in just 43. As of late October, only 39 drivers had been charged, some of them with traffic offenses such as reckless driving, rather than the criminal charges that tend to be slapped on perpetrators of gun crimes. Another expert, J. J. MacNab at George Washington University, noted a spectrum of driver motivations, citing as a “clear-cut” example a man in his vehicle who approached protesters, revved his engine, and drove into the crowd. The alleged assailant, whom the county attorney described as “an avowed Klansman” and a “propagandist of Confederate ideology,” was charged with multiple crimes. But what happens when the perpetrator is a bit more guarded about his motivations, or law enforcement more sympathetic?

We don’t have to speculate about the answer. In May in Tulare County, California, occupants of a Jeep flying a Trump flag antagonized a Black Lives Matter protest. Protesters chanted and threw water bottles; the Jeep driver responded by striking and injuring two of them. Prosecutors not only declined to charge the driver, but blamed the protesters for standing in the road.

The Tulare prosecutors also emphasized that the car’s occupants felt they were under threat. In 2017, Republican legislators in several states proposed civil “stand your ground” laws that would largely absolve drivers from tort liability for striking protesters. After the vehicular murder that summer of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville by a white supremacist, those bills were shelved. In September of this year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis briefly revived the debate by proposing a similar law. But even though none of these bills has been enacted, drivers who strike protesters already enjoy two layers of protection. They can claim they acted out of fear under threat, and they can also claim garden-variety inadvertence. The American system for regulating driving is already practiced at sweeping such “accidents” under the rug. This suggests a need for both stricter enforcement of vehicular-homicide laws and better vehicular regulation in general.

The general failure to regulate driving shrouds specific acts of vehicular violence, and makes out a stark contrast with firearms regulation. Americans are more confident inferring the malicious intent of a shooter than a driver, because they can imagine themselves in the shoes of the latter much more easily. The puzzle of a driver who strikes probably, but not definitely, on purpose creates cognitive dissonance for other drivers that is now being exploited by practitioners of political violence. They know that Americans are primed to accept explanations of vehicle-pedestrian collisions as “accidental.” Indeed, this has been our society’s standard response for longer than anyone can remember. Together, these rationalizations make more vehicular attacks inevitable—during election years and at all other times.