Honk If You're Going To Report This on the Internet
Web sites where you can complain about bad parkers, slow mergers, and that jerk who cut you off.
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.
Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.
Photograph of vehicle traffic by Digital Vision/Getty Images.