A Bumper Sticker That Saves Lives

I went to an interesting talk yesterday by a University of Chicago law professor named Lior Strahilevitz. Lior has a radical proposal about the “How’s My Driving?” stickers that we often see affixed to the back bumpers of trucks.

There is some initial evidence that these placards are “associated with fleet accident reductions ranging from 20 percent to 53 percent.” The idea is that truck drivers who know that they might be reported for driving dangerously are less likely to violate the rules of the road.

If the bumper sticker can help truck drivers, maybe it can help the rest of us too. Lior has proposed “‘How’s My Driving?’ for Everyone (And Everything?)” — a system whereby the government requires all cars to carry such stickers.

Lior’s big idea is to supplement police surveillance with a system of coveillance (where citizens watch each other). The use of “How’s My Driving?” stickers can harness the value of “millions of daily stranger-on-stranger driving observations that presently go to waste.”

In the past, Barry Nalebuff and I have extolled the idea of “black boxes” for cars that would record the car’s speed and whether a seat belt was being used — data that could be downloaded later in the event of an accident. These black boxes are also used in truck fleets and have been shown to reduce accidents — again because drivers drive safer when they know that the black box will later rat them out to their employers.

Road Safety has a black box that parents can use to make sure that their teenagers are driving more safely. This is no joking matter. I have a niece who rolled a car a few years ago and wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Luckily, she walked away without grievous injury, but she probably would have been wearing a safety belt if she knew that a Road Safety box was going to tell on her.

I’m still a fan of Road Safety. But Lior has me thinking that a bumper sticker might get you many of the same benefits at a fraction of the cost. And God bless America: there are now “How’s My Driving?” stickers for teenagers. Check out tell-my-mom.com (howsmydriving.com has a special program for senior drivers as well).

Bumper stickers might also keep your car from getting stolen. The Feds help support a Help End Auto Theft (H.E.A.T) program. You put a special bumper sticker on your car that gives the police advance permission to pull you over if they see your car being driven between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. It’s popular for oldsters (like me) who rarely drive during the wee morning hours.

But Lior’s paper makes me think that the H.E.A.T. program could be even better if the sticker instructed other drivers to call an 800 number if they see this car on the road at inappropriate times.

Of course there are obvious problems concerning both accuracy and privacy when living in a coveillance world. My kids want me to display a “How’s My Parenting?” sticker so that they can call child services on me when I screw up.

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  1. Jessica says:

    Is this idea any different from having license plates and being able to call the police and report anyone who is driving badly?

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  2. ListenEllipse says:

    As far as I know, when you are driving poorly and cause an accident you have to pay for any damages you cause. Isn’t that enough the encourage good driving?

    Also, traffic officers already witness more infractions than they can act on in a day. are they supposed to act on calls that they get from civilians?

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  3. Brian says:


    It’s very different. You cannot (reasonably) call the police when someone cuts you off. Nor are you likely to call the police if someone runs a red light or rolls through a stop sign (police have better things to worry about).

    Check out the paper, or hear him talk about it on iTunes (Chi Law faculty podcast).

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  4. Steve says:

    In a few years, everything we do will be monitored. And I predict that “going postal” will be increasing by 3 digit percentages for a generation or more.

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  5. Richard says:

    Jessica, yes it is because the sticker acts as a visible prompt.

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  6. Mike B says:

    Such a sticker would quickly become the best form of revenge since the Mormon Church set up a web page to request in person visits to any address. Furthermore, what would the sanctions for being reported be? There’s this thing called due process that prohibits the sorts of administrative punishments available to commercial operators.

    You also forget that these stickers already exist, they are called license plates and the phone number to call is 911 (or 311). A family member once saw two vehicles racing down a residential street, got their tag numbers and called the police. She later testified in traffic court and the defendants received a citation for reckless driving.

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  7. Joshua says:

    The state of Washington has a coveillance program to help reduce litter on highways. Signs on the side of the road instruct drivers to call a toll-free number to report the location and time of the littering incident along with the license plate number, make, and model of the car from which the litter was thrown. For first- and second-time reports, the driver receives a letter at the address of the vehicle’s registration. A third report elicits a ticket. My favorite part of the program is the slogan, “Litter and It Will Hurt.”

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  8. MITBeta says:

    The difference is that unless the police actually catch the person reported, nothing happens.

    What is needed is a system whereby for every so many offenses, the offender gets a written warning in the mail. For so many more offenses, a traffic safety refresher course is required. Additional offenses can have additional response escalation levels.

    Of course there’s no telling how many accidents will be caused by the observers dialing their cell phones…

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