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The Truth about America's Highway Killers: An Interview with Author Ginger Strand

In the special Bicentennial Issue of Life, the nation’s interstate system was described as, “The most grandiose and indelible signature that Americans have ever scratched across the face of their land.” This statement remains truer than the magazine’s...
May 8, 2012, 8:20pm

In the special Bicentennial Issue of Life, the nation's interstate system was described as, "The most grandiose and indelible signature that Americans have ever scratched across the face of their land." This statement remains truer than the magazine's editors knew. While the country's sprawling network of roads can conjure up the most positive of our cultural touchstones (ambition, hope, freedom, The Pursuit of Happiness), the construction and use of the interstates are caught in the same contradictions that define America's legacy.

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Thoroughly impressed by the Autobahn while leading the Allied Forces in Europe, Dwight Eisenhower envisioned transport routes that would impair a hypothetical foreign invasion. As President he authorized the system via the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, with planning help from Charles Erwin Wilson, the man who was appointed Secretary of Defense while still of General Motors and famously declared, "For years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa." Additionally, the effect that the interstates had on poor communities, particularly those of color, has been all but scrubbed from the public record, the extent of their displacement infrequently pondered between the GAS FOOD LODGING signs.

Author Ginger Strand has immersed herself in yet another disturbing aspect of the interstates: the fact that, as America began traveling more freely, they also began committing violent crimes at a much higher clip. The image of the Highway Killer is entrenched in our consciousness, its features derived from urban myths and cinema. Reading Strand's new book Killer on the Road, one learns very quickly that the actual details are much more disturbing. Part true-crime, part cultural history, and part sociological examination, it's a fascinating, yet haunting, ride that will remain with you long after you finish reading. It's a good thing: the questions and concerns it generates should not be easily dismissed. Strand was kind enough to answer some questions I had about the book, the interstates, and the killers who have plagued them.

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What initially made you think there might be a connection worth exploring, between the nation’s interstate system and the murders that have taken place on it?

I actually didn’t set out to write a book about murder! I was interested in the interstate highway system and its effect on our landscapes, our cities and our lives. As part of my research, I was watching a lot of films and reading a lot of books featuring highways, and I noticed how frequently they used the roads to set the scene for violence. I started thinking about the idea of the “highway killer,” and one day I Googled the phrase “Freeway Killer.” It was astonishing to me how many killers had that or a similar nickname! From that point on, my story about highways began to be shaped by the killers who haunted them.

American film and television often present killers as methodical and extremely intelligent individuals with very specific plans of action. The criminals described in your book often fit a much different mold. Were you surprised by how arbitrary and nondescript a lot of this violence has been?

Yes, I was. We all have a certain image of the serial killer in our mind—the “Ted Bundy” or “John Wayne Gacy” model of the psychopath who has a “mask of sanity” disguising a ruthless and tactical murderer within. And some highway killers fit this model—Ed Kemper, who features in Chapter 2, comes to mind. But many do not. In fact, some criminologists believe that the trucker killers I write about are not in fact psychopaths, but sociopaths—people with poor impulse control rather than a complete lack of what we might call “conscience.” And among highway killers, the most frequent similarity I found was a feeling of being left out of social mobility—they shared resentment at having been, as Charles Starkweather put it, “numbered for the bottom.”

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The stuff on Bruce Mendenhall (a trucker who became known as "The Rest Stop Killer" for murdering a number of women at truck stops) was particularly fascinating to me. When you describe the trucking lifestyle in your book, their propensity for breakdowns seems entirely logical, yet you write you were only able to find one report examining the mental health of truckers. What do you attribute this lack of attention to?

I wonder if it has to do with the fact that it’s a really big and intractable problem. I mean, if the trucking lifestyle is not only harming the health of truckers (which seems clear—have you ever taken a look at the truckers hanging out at your local T.A.?) but is actually helping to drive some of them mad, that’s a serious problem. But how do we fix it? Our entire economy depends on trucking now, and just-in-time delivery means there can be no interruption or slow-down. We want our widgets, we want them quickly, and we want them cheap. And the infrastructures we have built for the trucking industry—highways, trucking terminals, truck stops—are not going to change overnight.

Still, I hope that by getting people talking about these things, we might start down the road towards addressing the problem.

People drive along the interstates daily without thinking about what was paved to make them possible. Can you say a few things about their impact on many poor communities? Your analysis of how it changed Atlanta was chilling.

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It’s fascinating to me how quickly the historical amnesia about the highways set in. Over a million Americans were displaced by interstate construction. Atlanta, for example, demolished one-third of its housing stock, displacing 67,000 residents, 95% of them black. We’ve all heard about the urban riots of the late 1960s and 1970s, but we don’t learn that they were often sparked by interstate construction. The African American community called it “white men’s roads through black men’s bedrooms.” And it wasn’t just about race; it was about class. The interstates encouraged the entire middle class to relocate to the suburbs, then walled off the poor communities that remained downtown, warehousing the poor in badly designed public housing projects and separating them from the new jobs and better schools of the suburbs. This just reinforced the cycle of joblessness and despair. It was, as I say in the book, Jim Crow by way of infrastructure.

Now, by the way, the reverse is happening. Inner cities are popular with the affluent classes again, and the poor are being priced out and forced to move to the suburbs, where public transit is shoddy and good jobs are hard to get to.

Ok, last question: Honestly, did researching this book negatively alter your feelings about driving in any way? I read one review that speculated it could have the same impact on road tripping that Jaws had on swimming.

I love that quote, but you know what’s funny? I love to drive. I go on road trips all the time. I did most of my research for this book by road tripping—including once driving straight through from Nashville to New York City—14 hours—just to see what that was like. (Was I homicidal by the end? Nearly!) The connection between roads and violence is real, but it’s also very specific. For instance, if you don’t want to get murdered at a truck stop, there’s one easy strategy: don’t turn tricks at one. Stopping for a cup of coffee or a greasy hamburger is not going to get you killed. Though it may not be great for your waistline.

Seriously, the press loves to trump up the danger to the average American family on vacation, but it’s just not logical. Still, I did come to hate the roads for the way in which they are wound up in a growth-crazed economy that is increasingly willing to see people as numbers, and to number some of them for the bottom. Also, I do believe that driving a lot makes us less humane. Think of the obscenities you scream at a car that cuts you off. Would you say those things out loud to another human being? Behind the wheel, we are all psychopaths.

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