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By now it's a familiar site all over the developed world: the vehicle in front of you bears a prominent sticker asking, "How's my driving?" and shows a toll-free number to report. Why is the sticker there? The fleet operator hopes to reduce accidents among their vehicles, and to improve public goodwill by showing concern for the well-being of other drivers.
The initiative, begun about a decade ago, has mushroomed in recent years. Studies show that the benefits of the program in improved safety records have been impressive; one insurer found that crash costs were reduced by about half since the program began.
The source of this saving is twofold: each driver drives more safely knowing he or she is being monitored, and the most accident-prone drivers are removed. Conversely, anticipated negative impacts - such as malicious reporting - have been minimal. Finally, the explosion in mobile phone use immensely increases the convenience of reporting driver behavior. As a result, many more fleets voluntarily adopted the program, while many local governments mandated it. In 2005, Israel became the first country to obligate all commercial vehicles to bear these stickers.
The program has also generated some controversy. Drivers are not always thrilled about the stickers, and with some justification. After all, even the most careful and skilled driver occasionally makes mistakes; and sometimes what looks like careless or aggressive behavior may be a necessary response to some surprise road hazard.
In order to be fair to the driver, it is important that the fleet operator take account of this fact. A number of safeguards are appropriate. Certainly the driver must be allowed to give his or her own account of any reported incident. Even when wrongdoing is established, drivers should be given the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, except in the most serious cases. Any disciplinary steps should be commensurate, not excessive.
It would be desirable if we could ignore anonymous reports, which have the potential to be malicious, but this is probably not practical. At the very least, anonymous reports should be given less credence than those coming from people who identify themselves.
Interestingly, these very ethical considerations have proven themselves also to be critical effectiveness conditions. A recent paper by Ronald Knipling and others, studying the "How's my driving?" program, states: "These studies have shown significant reductions in vehicle crashes, insurance premiums, and DOT-reportable crashes when fleets used safety placards with an effective feedback loop, that is, feedback combined with training and instruction."
The driver is not the only person in the loop. The person reporting the hazard also needs to be respected. His or her help is totally voluntary and must be duly acknowledged. If the person answering the toll-free number is rude, the program will probably not be very effective. It goes without saying that the reporter's identity should never be revealed to the driver, as this would be an invasion of privacy and a deterrent to honest reporting.
Above all, fleet operators owe it to reporters to actually make effective use of the information they obtain. Those who report are volunteering time and expense because they believe they are making a contribution to safe highways; their expectations deserve to be fulfilled completely.
A fascinating development is the adoption of this program beyond vehicle fleets. For example, a site called tell-my-mom.com sells stickers to parents who would like reports about their offspring's driving habits. And law professor Lior Strahilevitz suggests extending this idea even further. In a recent paper, he has one chapter advocating "How's my driving for everyone." In Strahilevitz's view, peer reporting would be vastly superior and more cost-effective than the current system of police enforcement of traffic laws.
While this proposal seems rather far-reaching for now, at the very least it has value as a voluntary program. Insurance companies might well offer discounts to drivers willing to sport these stickers for the same reason fleet operators demand them: drivers will drive more safely, and the most dangerous operators can be filtered out - in this case, by being charged higher insurance rates or even denied insurance.
An additional chapter in Strahilevitz's paper asks "How's my driving for everything?" Pointing out that the HMD program is similar to eBay's remarkably successful reporting system for on-line auction participants, he suggests a variety of promising extensions: "How's my neighboring?" for monitoring rowdy hotel guests; "How's my policing?" for out-of-control police officers, and so on. Of course each of these extensions bears its own unique ethical challenges.
The "How's my driving?" initiative raises important ethical questions, but if the fleet operator uses the information obtained in a responsible way, it is a valuable feedback tool which ultimately benefits all motorists. I think that the idea of extending it to private drivers in a voluntary program run by insurers is a promising one which could make an important contribution to safer and more pleasant roads.
As the High Holy Days approach, we should be mindful of the scores of times the liturgy bids us ask forgiveness for careless speech that harms others. But we should also recall that, at the very pinnacle of the ancient Yom Kippur service, as the High Priest brings atonement to the entire people, he also recites a special prayer for the safety and well-being of the people. An ethically challenging program like "How's my driving?" needs to be managed very carefully, but improved road safety is a cardinal public priority and justifies the effort needed to make it equitable and effective.
The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org), an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology. He is also a rabbi.