Is it possible to shame people into driving better?
This question lies at the heart of whether special license plates should be issued to potentially dangerous drivers, such as those who've been convicted of DUI or of texting behind the wheel.
Only a handful of states require such plates, even though most drivers appear to like the idea, at least at first blush.
In a recent CarInsurance.com survey of 2,000 drivers across the country, most show a clear preference for license plates that would identify operators with a history of texting or DUI offenses. About half also support special plates for beginning or elderly drivers.
The support for ID plates is consistent among different age groups, except in the cases of special license plates for either young or old drivers. In both those situations, younger people are more likely to be in favor of such identifying markers.
- 62 percent of drivers aged 18-29 support license plates that would identify drivers older than 70; not surprisingly, that support drops to 26 percent among those over age 60.
- Interestingly, 18- to 29-year-olds show the same support -- 62 percent -- for license plates that would identify novice drivers, who are typically young. Only 48 percent of drivers who are over the age of 60 support license plates that would identify novice drivers.
- Young and older drivers are equally supportive of license plates that would identify any driver convicted of a DUI, with an average of 69 percent in favor of the idea.
- When it comes to texting while driving, younger drivers appear to be more forgiving: 54 percent of drivers age 18-29 would support special plates for those convicted of such distracted driving while 63 percent of those over 60 would.
To some degree, the results reinforce what many of us know, and what traffic experts warn: We're justifiably afraid of certain drivers.
"Handing out scarlet letters offers a bit of satisfaction," says CarInsurance.com managing editor Des Toups. "But, as a driver, I'm not sure how you could act on the information in a way that made you safer. Your eyes should be on the road."
America's most dangerous drivers
The greatest threats to everyone on the road continue to come from impaired or inexperienced drivers, with drivers distracted by modern technology closing in.
- Distracted driving is estimated to be responsible for more than 3,300 traffic fatalities and 420,000 injuries a year, according to federal highway statistics -- although exact figures are hard to come by, since texting or dialing actions often go unverified or unreported.
- Drunken driving causes about a third- - or more than 10,000 -- vehicular fatalities per year.
- Drivers under 25 have eight times as many accidents as those over 75, according to the National Safety Council. Senior citizens may be less decisive, but they tend to drive much less and to stay away from the busiest roads.
But drivers hoping to curb accidents through shaming may see little opportunity.
Only four states appear to have special-license plate programs in place: Minnesota, Ohio and Georgia for DUI or lack of license or insurance offenses; and New Jersey for young, new drivers.
Meanwhile, nine states have tried and failed, at least so far, to pass similar legislation in the last three years alone, while recent programs in two others were swiftly discontinued.
In Oregon, DUI offenders simply peeled off the required stickers. In Arkansas, legislators caved under concerns that family members who shared the marked car could be unfairly singled out, possibly even endangered.
New Jersey, which in 2010 became the first state to require probationary drivers under 21 to display a special tag on their plates, has come under fire by parents who fear criminals will target their children. They cite Florida as an example, where in the 1990s, criminals admitted to using the identifying lettering on rental-car plates to identify tourists. Thousands of assaults and robberies, including nearly a dozen murders, were directly linked to the ID plates.
Can license plates prevent accidents?
Even MADD, the fiercest proponent of tough DUI laws, remains relatively mum on the subject, focusing instead on ignition interlock devices and other measures to prevent offenders from driving at all, marked car or not.
"We don't support the use of identification plates," an agency spokesman says when pressed for a position. "MADD advocates for proven countermeasures to eliminate drunken driving."
Insurance companies use a carrot-and-stick approach to alter behaviors: Rewards for drivers with spotless records, breaks for seniors who take refresher courses and discounts for teenagers with good grades and driver training. But those with accidents or violations not only miss out on discounts, they may pay surcharges to boot.