The other day a friend and I were reconciling our memories of "shotgun" rules, the customs by which American teenagers determine who sits in the front passenger seat of a car. The concept derives from descriptions of the Old West, when armed employees rode next to stagecoach drivers.

Ironically, wikipedia suggests the term postdates Westward expansion, but it got me thinking. Cross country travel was, not so very long ago, not terribly safe. Robbery was common enough to warrant hiring armed escorts.

Of course, it's not common now. I'd rank the odds of me being robbed on a lonely Wyoming highway much lower than those of me being robbed down my block. At some point, travel got safer, which can only mean banditry became ineffective or unprofitable. When did Americans become safe from highway robbers, and how did that safety come about?

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    You might be interested in this related question - english.stackexchange.com/questions/42170/… . The accepted answer goes into the history a bit. Also, another answer there (by a devilishly good-looking fellow) elucidates the other named passenger positions. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 28, 2012 at 2:00
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    @Christopher, this is a fantastic question.
    – ihtkwot
    Commented Aug 28, 2012 at 3:39
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    I'd say when automobiles came about. Stopping a stage coach is one thing. Stopping a car going seventy miles an hour is another. Just a guess though.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Aug 28, 2012 at 22:17
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    @Luke - another possibility was when people stopped carrying about their persons a great amount of money due to more developed stated of banking systems and banks stopped sending currency via stagecoages due to armored cars (harkening back to your idea)
    – DVK
    Commented Sep 1, 2012 at 23:45
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    They haven't: see e.g. "carjacking".
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 20:23

2 Answers 2

  • The common date is the massive introduction of the automobile, in the early 1900s (interpreting these data) or 1908 (Ford T model production start). After the US civil war, a lot of train robberies happened, but the trains (as later the planes against high-jacking) were rapidly secured.

    The car itself rapidly became more value for potential robbers than most objects private passengers could carry, as well as a very efficient way to escape the bicycle- and horse-mounted police (1910 - 1911, first systematic car thefts by the Bonnot Gang in France). In the US, reselling car parts or stolen cars soon became relatively easy (horse were tattooed and it's not easy to resell horse car parts...).

    The rapid evolution of the police structure and mobility (1912 saw the first mobile police squadrons in Paris, 1920 the first systematic automobile patrols in NY, from 1932 on there were massive automobile purchases from the police) rapidly made it hard for highwaymen to act successfully.

    Nevertheless, 'Highway robbery' concentrated on high-value objects (pharmaceuticals for example) and cash transport like here or like the Denver Mint robbery of 1922. However they now prefer to act at truck stops, as with car-jacking taking place on signal lamps.

  • A good indicator of "highway robberies" could be the percentage of robberies carried out outside of towns, if we consider the approximation that the crime rates have sunk constantly in the modern era. The actual rate according to the US Census Bureau was 3% in 2009, and 4% for motor vehicle theft. Data prior to 1960 cannot be found so easily.

  • Another possible answer would be the change in the perception of highway robbery : Maybe highway robbery rates just didn't develop during the 1905-1915 period which saw a huge increase in violent crime (often linked to the migration and urbanization wave in this period, even if migrants crime rates are likely to have sunk during this time, cf Immigration, Crime, and Incarceration in Early Twentieth-Century America by CAROLYN MOEHLING and ANNE MORRISON PIEHL, a very interesting paper which can be found using a search engine). This would have made less spectacular, and as traveling became more common, the fear of highway robbery faded.

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    "it's not easy to resell horse car parts" - this excludes horse meat; which probably had a modest profit margin in places or times where meat was scarce. Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 2:16
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    @LateralFractal I don't think you understand the timing and work which it takes to properly slaughter an animal. warning somewhat violent link wikihow.com/Slaughter-Cattle
    – user1990
    Commented Feb 2, 2014 at 21:05
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    A cynic might argue that highway robbery didn't go away with the automobile, but merely transformed into the legal speed trap. The first Automobile Associactions formed shockingly early specifically to assist motorists in avoiding speed traps.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 15:44
  • @T.E.D.: We mostly have avoided those in Canada, except for actual safety-blitzes. It is quite common in Ontario for officers to reduce the overage by 20kph, and to ignore anyone going less than speed limit + 20kph. A few months ago I got my first ticket in over 10 years (carelessly going 115 in an 80) and was only fined for going 95. I was of course very polite to the officer. Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 20:19
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    @PieterGeerkens - Canada Nice indeed. When I lived in New Orleans back in the 80's they were aching to find reasons to send folks to jail. I spent several hours in NOLA Central Lockup for making a left-hand turn at an intersection that didn't allow such turns during rush hour. Was as polite to the cop as humanly possible. Still got cuffed and driven off in the cruiser
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 3:21

It used to be called: "Auto Banditry."

You will find more information under that term.

Source: my reprobate Grandmother's prison record of 1942, in Illinois.

In more modern times it was called "Car Jacking." So, really it did not disappear. As a woman, I have heard stories to not even have a loaf of bread in your front seat, and never ever have your purse visible.

Am I worried about a modern version of a highway bandit? Yep. If I see someone in the road needing "help," I would keep my doors locked and call 911 for the person. It depends what places you go to. Same as back then in historical times, some stretches of road were a security issue.

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    So you're essentially saying that Americans are not yet safe from highway robbery?
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 7:43

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