A few weeks ago, I was driving to the airport in Seattle. Traffic was flowing reasonably well on the freeway. Just two car lengths ahead of me, a driver in a pickup truck began swerving violently between the two leftmost lanes, nearly colliding with a minivan. The minivan blared its horns and the pickup driver proceeded to drive like a maniac for the next half mile or so, violently jerking his car from lane to lane, swerving unpredictably across multiple lanes, and forcing numerous drivers to brake suddenly and become agitated during an otherwise uneventful morning commute. The pickup driver then swerved for the exit ramp, and abruptly left the freeway.
This scenario -- atrocious driving on the freeway by an anonymous motorist, observed by dozens of bystanders, yet sanctioned in no meaningful way -- plays out thousands of times daily on American freeways. The police can’t be everywhere, we rarely know the people driving near us on the freeways, and this combination of rare surveillance and practical driver anonymity contributes substantially to aggressive driving. Largely as a result, vehicular collisions are the leading killer of Americans aged 15 to 29. I have just posted a brand new paper on SSRN (free download available here), that shows how the law can take much better advantage of the information that you and me obtain about our fellow motorists every day on the roads. The paper, entitled, “How’s My Driving?” for Everyone (and Everything?) (forthcoming NYU Law Review, Nov. 2006), advocates mandating the placement of “How’s My Driving?” placards on the bumpers of every car and truck in the United States. My paper argues that with a universal “How’s My Driving?” program, we can reduce vehicle accidents, dramatically lessen our expenditures on traffic police, improve the functioning of the tort system, and curtail road rage and driver frustration. The best available studies suggest that the use of “How’s My Driving?” placards and monitoring systems on commercial vehicles is associated with reductions in accidents of between 20 and 53 percent. There are strong reasons to believe that similar accident reductions could be achieved nationally if “How’s My Driving?” placards were mandated in all vehicles, and that thousands of lives could be saved every year as a result.
Before you start hyperventilating in the comments section, please check out the paper’s discussion of the obvious and serious objections to this program. For example, the paper suggests that by using the sorts of feedback algorithms that eBay and other reputation tracking systems have employed, the problems associated with false and malicious motorist reports can be ameliorated. Driver distraction is another potential pitfall, but available technologies can address this problem, and the implementation of a “How’s My Driving?” for Everyone system likely would reduce the substantial driver distraction that already results from driver frustration and rubbernecking. The paper also addresses the privacy and due process implications of the proposed regime.
I have concluded that, on net, the world would be a better place if the simple technologies that keep commercial truckers in line were used to let insurance companies and state governments find out which drivers among us are the least considerate and, by extension, the least safe. If you are intrigued by this idea, check out the rough draft of my paper and please let me know what you think.