Would the owner of a red Toyota Corolla, New Hampshire plate No. 1742131, please come forward? We have a question for you: namely, why, on Monday, April 27, 2009, somewhere on Route 101 West near Merrimack, N.H., after first attempting to block a merging vehicle, did you then swerve into the next lane, nearly running a nearby car (with "kids in the back") off the road?
Maybe it wasn't malicious. Maybe you simply lost control for a moment. Maybe your own kid in the back was choking on a Goldfish. But the driver of the other car will never know, nor will we. All we do know is that the tale above (if true!) was posted on Platewire.com, a place whereaffronted drivers from coast to coast can go to kvetch about the boorish habits of fellow motorists—outing them by their plates.
Platewire is the granddaddy of "how's your driving?" Web sites, but it is hardly alone, and at first glance taxonomists may be tempted to lump such sites in with "cybershaming" outlets like Don't Date Him Girl or I Saw Your Nanny, or even the feedback-intensive realms of e-commerce or social networking. But Platewire and its kin possess an added gravitas. For one, driving is, for most of us, life's riskiest proposition; and for another, the transgressions documented (with increasingly affordable and portable technology) can go beyond mere rudeness into actual violations of the law (e.g., impaired driving, red-light running). Why have these sites become so popular?
Unlike most other spheres of life, driving has particular dynamics that thwart civility: anonymity, absence of direct interpersonal communication, and lack of feedback. A general norm of cooperation exists, simply because most people want to get where they are going without running afoul of the law or dying. But traffic laws are enforced sporadically and cover only easily quantifiable violations—speeding, weaving in and out of lanes—and many tickets are issued only after a crash. What about all the violations that aren't flagged? What about all the annoying, often potentially dangerous driving acts that, while perhaps not quite worthy of an outright citation, nevertheless degrade the impromptu society that is the road?
What traffic lacks, in a word, is gossip. Although gossip is often reflexively maligned, psychologists have made the case for its usefulness as an "informal enforcement mechanism," a sort of social glue that helps bind together cultural norms—Oh, no she didn't!—often, it's been argued, more effectively than laws. (Some legal scholars think we're headed full-tilt toward a "reputation nation" and that perhaps everyone, not just truckers, shouldhave "How's My Driving?" stickers.) It's likely that the driver of the red Toyota Corolla acted the way he did because there were not likely to be consequences, either legally or, perhaps more importantly, socially.
This, I believe, is why so many Web sites have sprung up to record the daily slights and outrages of the road. (Cars need not be in motion, mind you; space-straddlers get their due at Bad Parking or http://nyc.mybikelane.com/.) At their most banal, these sites are a kind of digital complaint board around which to stand and collectively grouse—"idiots" is a watchword—to a fellow chorus of the aggrieved, who hold no power save that of affirmation; at their most engaged and proactive, they have "crowd-sourced" the identities of aggressive drivers or brought unlawful motorists to police attention.
There are two basic models: the collective, anonymous group of plate postings; and the more personalized blog-style site, in which a single driver—of the "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" variety—chronicles the hazards of his daily commute (complete with blurry photos). In this second category you find, for example, the man behind L.A. Can't Drive, who ranks offenders according to an "a—hole meter" and an "idiocy meter" and sounds a Spengler-ian doom about his city's commute: "I mean, honestly, you have to be freakin' blind not to see all of this happening on a daily basis. Hell, even the idiocy and a—hole ratings are getting lower for these infractions because everyone's doing it." (The site's Twitter feed is of particular interest, offering small koans that limn the absurdities of Los Angeles driving: "A car just pulled out of a driveway on goshen in brentwood, drove right across the street into a ralphs parking lot, and parked.") Over at the Twin Cities-based Life 8 Feet Up, "Dale the Truck Driver," armed with a dash cam, hints that "Minnesota nice" ends at the on-ramp—his pages are replete with heedlessly swerving drivers, people with "very important" texting to do, and those "hurrying up to get a red light." (He is, he admits, struggling to take the high road: "I don't want to call someone an idiot just because I think they drive like one.")
The sites have their weaknesses. For one, who's judging the driving of the people who post on them? Do they offer honest complaint or slander? (Photos help.) For another, the definition of bad driving is a bit slippery. At AboveAverageDriver.com, for example, an "outlet for road rage and the frustration that comes from our daily encounters on the open road," "driving too fast" ranks near the top of the list of most common complaints—followed immediately by "driving too slow" (which recalls George Carlin's famous riff that "anyone driving slower than you is an idiot … and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac"). A more serious issue is the sites' potential effectiveness. Unlike, for example, the campaign by Shanghai's "Civilization Office" that posted photos of traffic offenders at their place of work, there is no immediate feedback loop for a site like Platewire.com—out of a vast traffic stream, only a few people are flagged; and out of a vast Internet traffic stream, only a few people read Platewire.com.
This is not to say these sites cannot achieve something. Jeff Frings, a news cameraman and dedicated bicyclist in Wisconsin, began filming his rides with a helmet-mounted camera (he favors the Oregon Scientific ATC2K) after being on the receiving end of one too many aggressive maneuvers by cars (or FedEx trucks). He (and a few others) has become a crusader for the rights of bicycles to travel on public roads (and for drivers to follow, in Wisconsin at least, the "3 feet law") and has even deployed his oft-harrowing footage to convince some local police precincts to issue citations. (Though he appreciates the educational value of a written warning, "I'm not looking to get people cited," he writes. "I just want them to be more careful around bicyclists.")
As to why people feel compelled to post complaints about, say, drivers who were changing lanes without signaling—drivers they will never see again—the answer probably has something to do with the fact that the majority of posts on a site like Platewire.com are complaints (as are the calls to "How's My Driving?" phone numbers) and not praise (it is an option). Beyond merely venting, there is a powerful urge for social justice at play. As the work of economist Ernest Fehr, among others, has shown, people seem willing to go out of their way to punish people who don't cooperate, even if the punisher will not personally benefit. We seem skewed toward the will to punish; a study by Boaz Keysar and colleagues at the University of Chicago that looked at experimental "giving" and "taking" games suggested that people were twice as willing to "escalate" their response in the face of "negative reciprocity" than to reward for acts of giving. Which is perhaps why Platewire.com and its ilk are not filled with paeans to kindly drivers who let others merge in crowded traffic.
A deeper impulse may simply be to bring a bit of the small town (or even the "small group" of our long evolutionary past)—where everybody knew your name, and you acted like they did—to the impersonal road, where we are all strangers, and so many tend to behave that way.