We need to talk about your driving...

August 30 2014

I love email and I love The Listserve. It's a fantastic idea that recalls the aspirational, democratic ideals of the early internet.

Some of the best uses of modern technology, imho, are those that try to bring people together, to foster communication, to open minds, to leverage this amazing global web for the betterment of humankind, even in modest ways.

The Listserve does that. Boingboing, the wonderful blog where I first heard of the Listserve, does that too. The whole ecosystem of online review sites does that (or at least it used to, before most of them descended into gamified sock-puppet botmarts full of fake accounts and spam).

And that's also the ambition behind Passing Remarks. This is a free, non-profit site that a friend and I built, which lets road users connect with one another using only their number plates.
It's our old-fashioned attempt to use web tech to tackle a very real social problem: road safety.

It hit me one day while gazing in terrified awe at a particularly reckless overtaking manouevre. I realised that our vehicle registrations, these very public signifiers, are effectively useless to us citizens; only the police and other authorities hold the keys to their use. "What if we could email any driver we saw?" I wondered. "What would we say? Slow down buddy? Thanks for letting me merge? Your brake light is busted? Would road users exchange constructive criticism? Or would it degenerate into road rage and name-calling?"

Well, like many Listservians, I'm a developer, and so I set about finding out. Now that Passing Remarks has been running for several years, I have some answers to my questions. And they're encouraging!

More than a third of all messages (37%) are complimentary, e.g. "Thanks for the jumpstart" or "We appreciate you slowing in our neighbourhood." It seems there's a sizeable group who'll say something nice, if given the chance. This should reinforce continued road manners.

A slightly higher proportion (41%) are neutral in tone, e.g. "You broke the red at 53rd and 3rd" or "You speed past my house every morning" (users can include maps too). That's fine, I think. Most people are open to changing their driving, I suspect, once they realise its effect on others.

Only 19% of remarks are negative, offensive or aggressive. Those are discouraged, and users are requested to Be Polite, but maybe it helps to let off steam.

Finally, there's some flirtation going on! For example, "Hey gorgeous in the black Saab! You have a secret admirer in a blue Camry." That sort of thing.

Anyone can make remarks on the website itself, no registration needed, but my favourite bit is "email any driver".

Suppose you're cut off by truck registration GBQ 7198 (example plate from Wikipedia). You can simply mail [email protected], putting your message in the subject. In other words, every car, everywhere, now has an email address! Drivers just have to log in to read their mail.

You can test it yourself by mailing your own number plate [at] passingremarks [dot] com. Remember, message in the subject. Then just visit the website (Google “passing remarks driver”) to check. Wait a while, though, it takes a few minutes.

As I said before, the idea behind Passing Remarks is to boost road safety. It's really just an experiment, but I'd love to hear any ideas to improve it at the address below.

Thanks for reading - and major thanks to the Listserve, for keeping email important!*

* The Atlantic had a great piece on this recently BTW. Google “email still the best thing”, highly recommended.

Geoff Gorry
[email protected]
Dublin, Ireland

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