Should Law Subsidize Driving?

78 Pages Posted: 4 Mar 2019 Last revised: 21 Jun 2019

See all articles by Gregory H. Shill

Gregory H. Shill

University of Iowa College of Law; American Bar Foundation; New York University School of Law

Date Written: March 1, 2019


A century ago, captains of industry and their allies in government launched a social experiment in urban America: the abandonment of mass transit in favor of a new personal technology, the private automobile. Decades of investment in this shift have created a car-centric landscape with Dickensian consequences.

In the United States, motor vehicles are now the leading killer of children and the top producer of greenhouse gases. They rack up trillions of dollars in direct and indirect costs annually, and the most vulnerable—the elderly, the poor, people of color, and people with disabilities—pay the steepest price. The appeal of cars’ convenience and the lack of meaningful alternatives has created a public health catastrophe.

Many of the automobile’s social costs originate in the individual preferences of consumers, but an overlooked amount is encouraged—indeed enforced—by law. Yes, the U.S. is car-dependent by choice. But it is also car-dependent by law.

This Article conceptualizes this problem, and offers a way out. It begins by identifying a submerged, disconnected system of rules that furnish indirect yet extravagant subsidies to driving. These subsidies lower the price of driving by comprehensively reassigning its costs to non-drivers and society at large. They are found in every field of law, from traffic law to land use regulation to tax, tort, and environmental law. Law’s role is not primary, and at times it is even constructive. But where it is destructive, it is uniquely so: law not only inflames a public health crisis but legitimizes it, ensuring the continuing dominance of the car.

The Article urges a reorientation of law away from this system of automobile supremacy in favor of consensus social priorities, such as health, prosperity, and equity.

Keywords: law and economics, driving, autonomous vehicles, tax law, tort, criminal law, environmental law, moral hazard, insurance, land use, state & local government law, vehicle design

JEL Classification: K00, K13, K14, K20, K32, K34, K42, R40, R48, R52

Suggested Citation

Shill, Gregory H., Should Law Subsidize Driving? (March 1, 2019). 95 New York University Law Review __ (2020 Forthcoming); U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2019-03. Available at SSRN: or

Gregory H. Shill (Contact Author)

University of Iowa College of Law ( email )

Boyd Law Building
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States

American Bar Foundation

750 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States

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