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A Bumper Sticker That Saves Lives—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on Sept. 17, 2008.

A Bumper Sticker That Saves Lives
By Ian Ayres ’86

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.