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2006 12 22
Outing Bad Drivers?

Public humiliation, it seems, has found a new outlet as a means of encouraging statutory obedience, or, where that fails, 'outing' transgressors. A few days after reporting that the Durham Region Police Service will publicize the names of people charged with impaired driving, the Toronto Star tells its readers about Platewire, a website that invites registrants to 'Award', 'Flag', signal 'Hazard' to, or 'Wink' at other drivers they encounter on (or perhaps careening off) the road. Platewire has recently expanded to include Canada in a beta version, and lists several dozen Canadian plates and encounters by province (about ten are from Ontario).

I was intrigued immediately, having myself suggested here at Reading Toronto that a 'bad driver' list might, like the 'bad date' lists some sex workers maintain, warn bicyclists and possibly even motorists of bad, dangerous, or violent drivers. But looking at Platewire's execution of a similar idea, I see a number of intractable problems.

The first and perhaps most urgent problem is one of procedural justice. It appears that anyone may allege the incompetence of a(nother) driver without submitting evidence to back up this claim. More problematically, the owner of a flagged plate has no formal recourse to challenge such a claim (although a Platewire representative told the Toronto Star that a driver can "challenge the complaint and have it shielded from public viewing.") This isn't enough, in my view. A further problem is that while alleged transgressors are identified, their accusers are able to hide themselves behind a cloak of anonymity. This goes against a fundamental principle of western justice, namely that an accused may face his/her accuser in an open court. There are other problems, of course, including the rather high likelihood of writing down a plate incorrectly and thereby targeting someone who wasn't even there, the reality that a single vehicle may be used by several drivers, the inevitable proliferation of malicious and fabricated reports, and the possibility of Platewire being used by stalkers to satisfy their fetish for indirect proximity. The Star article raises the question of whether Platewire might be taken to invade the privacy of drivers: in my view the larger issue is whether individual plate owners are being libeled. Despite the high judicial threshold for establishing libel claims, the cost of even a threatened tort action might quickly encourage the operators of the site to shut it down. We'll see.

Procedural problems notwithstanding, it is easy to understand the appeal of a site like Platewire, especially in a large city like Toronto where social norms are more difficult to negotiate and where pursuing action through formal channels can seem unbearably unwieldy. How much more straightforward and safe it seems simply to launch invective from behind your computer screen. (Bad) drivers, you might think, should all be targeted and humiliated. As one anonymous Platewire complainant wrote about an Ontario driver subsequently identified by name, "I almost strangled him! I hope he gets his licence taken away, and then dies. I'm sorry, I'm just enraged." But comments like this, seemingly deserving of complaint sites of their own, raise yet another problem: how likely is Platewire to encourage better driving? And is there any opportunity for targeted plate owners to be redeemed? Or does Platewire merely encourage a debased form of mouse-wielding vigilantism, not to mention drivers so bursting with self-entitlement that they'll report anybody who dawdles too long after the light turns green?

The existence of Platewire, set amid an electronic domain whose most valuable commodity is not free speech but anonymity, underscores a deeper problem: the decline of both civil discourse and a sense of personal responsibility. I am not entirely opposed to vigilante justice -- often enough the state is seriously remiss in protecting and seeking justice on behalf of its citizens, and grassroots or libertarian action the only way to be heard -- but if sites like Platewire are to offer a legitimate alternative to shaking your fist at the driver who cuts you off or filing police reports after a fender-bender, then they should not replace cumbersome bureaucracy with outright injustice. And in my view, vigilantism isn't just if it's accomplished while wearing a mask.

For nearly a decade some years ago I lived and worked seasonally in a small town in eastern Ontario. If you drove recklessly, half the town would tell you about it before you got out of Baldree's parking lot. And now, living again in Toronto, I don't think the difference is merely that this is a big city or that someone might pull out a gun or punch you in the face. I think, too, that we've gotten used to depending upon institutions to intercede even in our most prosaic interactions. We expect the state to adjudicate not only justice but manners, and where the state fails, we erect proxy institutions to fulfill our demands that "something should be done". The problem is that we never want to be the one to do it, and we never want to expose our own actions to scrutiny. And in this respect we reduce ourselves to snitches and gossips. When we attack others through a site like Platewire, what we are seeking is not justice but coercion, not due process but convenience.

That's hardly a basis for civil society.

But you know, there are alternatives that seem to work, even here in Toronto. I don't drive a car here, but I've been a cyclist in Toronto for four years. For the first two years, I rode with a twinned sense of terror and entitlement. I was convinced that every second driver meant to knock me into the curb, and as a result my commutes were filled with fantasies involving spiked wheel hubs and spray paint. Then, a couple of years ago, I decided to treat drivers as if I didn't think they were deliberately homicidal. I stopped throwing down my bike every time someone nearly killed me, and began communicating actively with other vehicles. I found, increasingly, that if I let a car into the intersection, the driver would let me ride ahead later to pass a row of parked cars without risking being squashed. I still encounter unsafe and occasionally violent drivers, and file an assault-related police report about once a year, but for the most part I enjoy being able to negotiate the nuances of road use directly with drivers. I chose to bike for the personal freedom it offered, and am not likely to give up even a portion of that liberty by resorting to making anonymous complaints online.

What about drivers who won't negotiate reasonably? Who shouldn't be on the road? Who are oblivious to their own incompetence, or who become violent when confronted? Well, by all means, complain about them publicly. Lodge a police complaint. Even post a warning to a site like Platewire.

But don't do so anonymously. If you believe in civil society and want to throw stones, you shouldn't be afraid to live behind glass.
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 12/22 at 03:41 PM

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