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.