Killer on the Road
In the mid-fifties, Congress transformed how the American nation traveled, lived, and worked. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 green-lighted the planet's largest public work: the 42,795-mile National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. The nation eagerly embraced its expressways, at least at the start. Nothing is more American than striking out for new horizons, so it seemed only appropriate that America should have the biggest, fastest, safest, most beautiful roads the world had ever seen.
Before the concrete was dry on the new roads, however, a specter began haunting them: the highway killer. He went by many names: the "Hitcher," the "Freeway Killer," the "Interstate Killer," the "Killer on the Road," the "I-5 Killer," the "Beltway Sniper." Some of these criminals were imagined, but many were real. Highway violence followed hard on the heels of interstate construction: the nation's murder rate shot up in the sixties and seventies. America became more violent and more mobile at the same time.
Were they linked? Did highways lead to highway violence? Yes and no. More highways meant more travel, more movement, more anonymity all conducive to criminality. Highway users could become easy victims: stranded motorists, hitchhikers, drifters, and truck stop prostitutes were vulnerable to roving predators. But most killers are not predators, most predators don't roam the country, and highways have never been the main stage for the nation's bad actors. In the cultural unconscious, however, highways and violence quickly became entwined. Jim Morrison sang about a killer hitchhiker; slasher films dispatched hitchers by the score; Steven Spielberg's first feature film, Duel, centered on a faceless, murderous trucker. Add in a steady stream of news stories about snipers on overpasses, snatchers at rest stops, drive-by shooters, drivers with road rage, and the conclusion is clear: the highway is full of dangers! If a song or book title contains the word Interstate or Freeway, expect mayhem, or at least some road-related bloodshed. If you're watching a movie in which the family car breaks down on the highway extra points if it's in the rain, at night you know what to think: Don't get out of the car! There's a psychokiller on the road.
By the eighties, when the interstate network was completed, it was considered a dangerous place and not just because of car accidents. People feared hitchhiking, breakdowns, rest areas, truck stops, and aggressive drivers. There was a killer on the road all right, and regardless of how real he was, he had a choke hold on the American imagination. Today the highway killer, like the train robber, the gangster, and the mobster before him, has entered the cast of American outlaws, and the freeway has taken its place among landscapes that easily lend themselves to nightmares.
The freeway killer's rise as a type paralleled the nation's increasing disillusionment with its highways. Expressways were originally considered not only safe and speedy, but beautiful: the nation's first limited-access divided highway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, was nicknamed the "Dreamway." People lined up for hours to drive on it. In the fifties, new interstates were featured in ads for cars, gasoline, tires, and more. Chevy ads featured a collection of divided highways, asking, "Which would you pick as America's finest road?" It's a startling contrast with car ads today, where vehicles glide down winding two-lanes, cruise down beaches, perch on rocky overlooks, bounce over cobblestones go anywhere, in short, except down a divided highway.
Today the highways are not only seen as ugly, they are often depicted as downright vicious. "The road," writes James Kunstler, "is now like television, violent and tawdry." Critic Jane Holtz Kay described the "mechanical scythe of the highway" that "maimed whatever it touched." Even when not actively committing murder, the expressway has become a marker of social dysfunction: films from Falling Down to Freeway to Crash propose highways as analogs for cultural psychosis. Moviemakers can simply toss out an image of a freeway packed with cars to suggest a world gone mad. In the opening sequence of James Cameron's blockbuster Terminator II, a slow-motion shot of a busy interstate dissolves into a nuclear holocaust. Somehow, the film hints, the highway took us here. Sold to the nation as the safest, fastest, most beautiful route to the best of all possible worlds, our interstates weren't here for long before they were recast as highways to hell.
Why should this be? Why should one of our most impressive public works evoke in us feelings of fear and unease? Indeed, a few deranged individuals did use the highway system, and the anonymous landscapes it created, as a means to murder. But the response to those crimes went well beyond their actual danger to the population. The disproportionate fear of the killer on the road reveals cultural misgivings about highways and the values they represent.
If you're at all typical right now you're probably thinking one thing: Cold War. Of course it makes sense that the highway program would be linked to violence in the American mind, because the highways were part of the Cold War drive to heighten the nation's civil defenses. Atomic Armageddon can't be far from anyone's mind when looking at roads designed to evacuate cities and move military troops and tanks. You may even have heard that one mile in every five has to be straight so that airplanes can land on the interstate in a war emergency. I heard that story many times growing up, and even more times while working on this book. In fact, it's an urban legend the Federal Highway Administration debunks it on its website. But it's part of the larger and more enduring myth about our interstate highways, which we'll dispense with right off: the myth that they were built for civil defense.
In 1954, President Eisenhower asked key members of his administration to begin formulating a "dramatic plan to get 50 billion dollars' worth of self-liquidating highways under construction." Although he was very fond of recounting how he had seen Germany's autobahns during the war and wanted Americans to have the same thing, Ike wasn't looking for a defense program; he was looking for a stimulus program. He and his economic advisors believed road-building would be an effective way to "prime the pump" of the economy and avoid recession. They were especially worried about this after Eisenhower, true to his campaign promise, ended the war in Korea plunging the nation into an economic downturn. No one wanted this, particularly the Republicans, still smarting from the public perception that Herbert Hoover had done too little to fend off the Great Depression.
The highway program was thus first and foremost an attempt to counter recession. Its real purpose, as one of Eisenhower's advisors puts it, was "economic development . . . what the program could contribute to economic growth of industry and of agriculture and of our communities." In fact, "Defense" was only added to the interstate network's name after the highway bill failed to be approved the first time it went to Congress. In 1955, Congress declined to create a "National System of Interstate Highways." In 1956, it passed the bill creating the "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways." "The defense angle was a very persuasive part of the argument, you see," noted Senator Prescott Bush, a member of the Senate Public Works Committee during the Eisenhower era, in a 1967 interview. "Very persuasive." Frank Turner, executive secretary to the President's Advisory Committee on highways and later head of the Bureau of Highways, called defense in the highway program "an afterthought." But it was an afterthought with PR payoffs.
Defense was so much an afterthought that in the final highway bill, an earlier appropriation of $50 million for access roads to military installations was taken out. By the time the bill was passed, defense was so far from anyone's mind, no one even thought to ask the military to weigh in on highway standards. In 1960, four years into interstate construction, the Department of Defense would point out that the overpasses were being built too low for its purposes. By then, it would be too late to change.
It would be wrong, however, to say that the interstate highway program that unfolded over the next half century was nothing more than a calculated effort to ward off the ghost of Herbert Hoover. When Eisenhower proposed the highway program, there were inevitable arguments about how to fund it. But no one in Washington was against highways. Highways fostered mobility, and mobility represented prosperity, connection, growth: it was nothing less than the core of the American dream. "The entire economy of the United States," Eisenhower's highway advisor Lucius Clay declared, "is built on transportation."
Retired Army General Lucius Clay former military governor of Germany, organizer of the Berlin Airlift, close friend to Eisenhower, and CEO of the Continental Can Company was the man who helped the president shape the interstate program. Eisenhower had appointed Clay to be head of the President's Advisory Committee, a group tasked with drawing up a plan to fund and execute the highway program. Clay chose four more members: Stephen Bechtel, head of one of the nation's leading construction companies; William Roberts, CEO of Allis-Chalmers, a construction equipment manufacturer; Dave Beck, president of the Teamsters union; and Sloan Colt, head of Banker's Trust. It has frequently been noted that these four men represented the major interests that stood to gain from massive government spending on highways: construction, trucking, and banks. It has also been pointed out that Lucius Clay sat on the board of General Motors. Neither Clay nor Eisenhower saw a conflict there. They shared the opinion of Charles Wilson, the former head of GM who became Eisenhower's secretary of defense. Asked at his confirmation hearing whether his connection with GM presented a potential political conflict of interest, Wilson declared, "I have always believed what was good for the country is good for General Motors and vice versa."
General Clay also knew what was good for the country: cars. After he and his committee issued their report urging the creation of a federally funded highway program, Clay made the rounds of Washington gatherings to tout the proposed program. Speaking to groups of city planners, state officials, and mayors, General Clay told American leaders why building more highways was critical to the nation's future. It was simple: in order to grow its economy, the nation needed to grow its auto industry.
"The importance of the automobile to the American way of life has increased beyond measure," he explained. "It is really now our basic industry. Approximately 1 in 7 of our workers directly or indirectly build or service the automobile. Approximately 1 in 6 of our wholesale and retail establishments directly or indirectly service the automobile. Any leveling off in automobile use would certainly be disruptive to our economy."
Roads, it seemed, were essential for one major reason: to induce Americans to buy cars.
As General Clay was speaking, a young man in Lincoln, Nebraska, was dreaming of hot rods. Like all American teenagers, Charles Starkweather was in love with cars. Cars meant a growing economy to Lucius Clay, and to people like Charlie they represented the personal side of that dream: a better life. A car could take you places. Charles Starkweather had hardly been out of Lincoln, but he dreamed of getting a car and hitting the road. Not a new car, of course; he couldn't afford that. But an old one he could tinker with, maybe even soup it up a little. One year later, James Dean would play Jim Stark, the drag-racing hero of Rebel without a Cause. Charles Starkweather loved that movie so much he started styling himself after Dean. Jim Stark would win his reputation and his girl by being the toughest driver on the road, and Charlie Starkweather wanted that too.
Charlie wasn't alone. Teenagers across the nation saw cars as a route to everything good: adulthood, self-determination, advancement, sex. But they weren't just rebelling. Adults also loved cars. Almost as soon as it was invented, the car became a key element in the American dream, and the open road soon joined it. Throughout the early twentieth century, highway boosters preached the doctrine of salvation by cement: better roads, they claimed, enriched leisure, enhanced public health, and promoted social cohesion. Highways spread the blessings of prosperity by making people and money more mobile. The architects of the interstate program didn't want roads to alleviate traffic: they wanted roads to make more of it.
It was all part of the economic orthodoxy just coming into fashion: endless growth. The era's economists had determined that increasing consumption was the only way to raise the average standard of living without any ugly socialist ideas like income equity. As Eisenhower's Treasury Secretary George Humphrey summarized the conventional wisdom for a group of governors in 1954, greater affluence for all did not require redistribution of wealth: you simply "make another pie and everybody has a bigger piece." The highway program was a way to enlarge the pie.
It was the economics of more. Selling more cars meant manufacturing more cars; manufacturing more cars meant creating more jobs; creating more jobs meant more people to buy more cars and on and on it went, like a freeway leading off toward a distant horizon. There was little concern for what lay at the end; there was only the beauty of growth and the dedication to velocity for its own sake: a Manifest Destiny for modernity. It wasn't mere greed. To the barons of automobility, more cars meant more money for them, yes but more cars also meant growth and success for everyone. It meant a nation of movers and shakers, an economy that was going places and people who were getting somewhere. Getting ahead, moving up, riding high: the very language of success in America is the language of movement and speed. Freeways with cars to fill them meant mobility social as well as physical. "[T]he automobile," declared the Labor Department, "has aided wage earners . . . in breaking down barriers of community and class."
People like Charles Starkweather bought into this fantasy. But they sometimes bumped up against an awful truth: the barriers of class and community could not be breached by everyone. For people at the very bottom of the economic ladder, the postwar years were a time when those barriers grew even higher. People like Charlie became even more isolated from the mainstream.
Eminent Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith saw it happening. In 1958, Galbraith published his enormously influential book The Affluent Society. In a chapter called "Inequality," Galbraith posed the question of why everyone the left as well as the right had turned so fiercely against the notion of sharing the wealth. The answer was economic growth. The average person in the fifties was a lot better off than his counterpart a few decades earlier, not because any revolution or regulation had redistributed income in fact, inequality was greater than ever but just because the economy was growing so much. There really was a bigger pie, as Secretary Humphrey promised, and everyone had a bigger piece.
Almost everyone. In fact, while the middle class was growing and the average standard of living was on the rise, the poor at the very bottom were worse off than ever. Their piece of the pie was shrinking fast, but few people cared. "Increasing aggregate output," wrote Galbraith, "leaves a self-perpetuating margin of poverty at the very base of the income pyramid. This goes largely unnoticed, because it is the fate of a voiceless minority." Eventually, this voiceless minority would come to be called the "underclass."
Although it was sold to the public as a program for jobs and civil defense, the interstate highway program was driven by the principle of growth. Some historians have called it the last big New Deal program. It might better be called the first corporate entitlement: a welfare program for corporations instead of people. It created construction jobs, but not enough jobs to make a difference, in part because rapidly improving construction equipment was continually reducing labor needs. The makers of that construction equipment, along with the makers of cement and steel and, of course, car and oil companies, were the real beneficiaries. There were trickle-down effects: those companies hired more people. Land values near the new roads skyrocketed; the need for highway engineers increased. But studies show that as many states began pouring half their capital outlays into roads, prices of goods and services were driven up. The large-scale economic effect of highway building was to drive up inflation and intensify economic upswings and downswings exactly the opposite of what Ike had hoped. The highway bill would do little for the real economic losers.
This, too, was a kind of violence. Each outburst of panic about the killer on the road revealed barely disguised anxiety about what a commitment to mobility really meant. Was the nation being connected, or driven apart? Was its standard of living improving, or were some people being left behind in the race for material success? Was endless growth with its dedication to the proposition that consuming equals happiness really the road we wanted to take?
"We've built our lives on wheels," declared a 1955 Ford brochure supporting the highway program, "and we can't afford traffic jams." Mobility was a sign of the times, and there was anxiety about that. Many people feared that the nation was leaving behind its roots in close-knit communities and human connection and heading toward a new culture of materialism, selfishness, and anonymity, a world where you are what you drive, and where encounters between citizens were as likely to end in bloodshed as brotherhood. The highways came to represent the nation's ambivalence about having built its life on wheels.
And yet, who could resist it, the allure of the open road, the highways' circulatory system pumping goods and people from one side of the nation to the other? If you grew up in rural America, as I did, you probably saw the interstate as a lifeline, a long gray ticket out of town. The fascination of the transcontinental road trip like the siren song of the frontier is an invitation to remake yourself anew. Hitchhike your way across the USA and at the other side, you can become a new person. If that's not utopia, what is?
Freeway as new world/freeway as world gone wrong. We remain schizophrenic about our interstates: we can't decide if they are delivering the American dream or destroying it. That's probably because they did some of both. Highways linked people together and drove them apart; created opportunities for urban development while hastening white flight from city centers; offered access to the nation's natural treasures while ramming concrete alleys over its landscapes; spawned a boom in franchises while destroying mom-and-pop stores; revitalized trucking and drove a stake in the heart of passenger rail. Roads are, as Ted Conover writes in The Routes of Man, "double-edged." While the dream of the open road means freedom, escape, and betterment, we know that, like so many dreams, it can easily morph into a nightmare. And we acknowledge that nightmare in the bogeyman of the freeway killer.
The first and still the most famous of those bogeymen was Charlie.