Ever since moving to the DC metro area, I spend a lot of time in traffic. I am not a very patient driver, so I’m constantly frustrated with the traffic around here and the driving habits that make it so bad. The thing is, it’s a small percentage of drivers who cause most of the delays. If you don’t believe me, keep your eyes peeled next time you’re stuck in traffic. Somebody will be driving noticeably slower than the natural speed would be (what everybody else would be doing if that driver were not there). Occasionally you get the worst of it and two slow drivers will be next to each other with a long solid line of cars behind them and an open road in front.
People are constantly devising ratings services for products and services currently on the market. Amazon, Netflix, and eBay are famous examples of relatively recent services, and Consumer Reports has been doing this for many years. It occurred to me that it would be helpful if there were some sort of rating system for drivers. In principle one could do this now with a website where reviewers enter in a plate number and a description with their commentary, but this is unlikely to be successful. Drivers would have a difficult time getting plate numbers, and it may not be worth the time to get home and write a review for someone who committed some minor traffic infraction.
Technological development can help. Car computer systems are getting increasingly sophisticated. Not only this, but iPads and smartphones have a usable glass technology that can help. What I have in mind, in perhaps twenty years, is something like this: the windows and windshield of a car being screens in the sense that images can be displayed on the glass, superimposed over the images normally seen. A car could be displayed has having some kind of identifying feature on or around them, like many video games have now. Perhaps a subtle glow around the image. When the computer system is sophisticated enough, drivers will be able to speak to them. Assuming that for some purpose each car has some kind of transmitter, maybe for navigation purposes, each car could then be identifiable. If someone is driving especially poorly, you can direct your onboard computer to give him some kind of negative review. Maybe it can be a 1-5 star system, or a rating of -1 or 1. These can feed into a car review system, so that a driver who accumulates negative reviews will eventually be identified by the onboard computer by a slight red glow indicating that this driver is to be avoided.
Insurance companies could make use of such a system. A driver who gets enough negative reviews is likely an insurance risk, and rates could be adjusted accordingly. These could even work with a private road system, where at some level of constant negative review a driver could be fined or have a fee attached to his bill.
There is the potential for abuse, but a clever design could avoid major problems. Maybe limiting the number of reviews a person can give over a period of time so that people would only flag especially bad drivers. Maybe an appeals system. Maybe other features, and probably a combination of all of these. Certainly we’d want some kind of anonymizing feature so that the state does not get involved in tracking peoples’ movements. The particular design is not the point here. This system would allow people to know which drivers are making life difficult for other drivers, and would allow bad drivers to realize that other people are upset with them so that they could correct their bad behaviors. This could also help in identifying common patterns of bad driving or design flaws in the road network.
The system for harmonizing driving behaviors that we have now is not very good, but with current technology there’s not a lot we can do about it. Police are rarely around to catch certain bad practices, and they have no interest or mandate in penalizing people for more subtle but still important things like driving too slowly. Moreover we ought to be trying to find ways to coordinate behaviors that don’t rely on the police. A mature and responsible society ought to find other ways to enhance cooperation. This could be one such way to deal with something that many people put up with every day.
Update 2014-06-22: Vox has a great piece on how slow drivers in the left lane are dangerous.