Technology & Science·Q&A

U.S. safety agency calls out distracted drivers on Twitter

If laws and fines won't convince drivers not to text and drive, will online shaming work? As part of a new campaign, one U.S. federal agency is using social media to "name and shame" drivers who tweet, text and snap behind the wheel.

Campaign aims to publicly name and shame tweeters who admit to dangerous driving habits

Since fines don't seem to deter drivers from using their phones, some suggest shaming can change social attitudes. In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been using their Twitter account to call out drivers who post about their bad driving habits. (LM Otero/Associated Press)

If laws and fines won't convince drivers not to text and drive, will online shaming work? 

As part of a new campaign, one U.S. federal agency is using social media to "name and shame" drivers who tweet, text and snap behind the wheel.

CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener has looked into the campaign, and the effectiveness of online shaming.

How are government officials using Twitter to find distracted drivers?

In the U.S., there's a federal agency called the NHTSA — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And they have a Twitter account (@NHTSAgov).

If you look at their recent Twitter activity, you'll see that for the past few weeks they've essentially been calling people out — by name, in public — about their driving habits. You could call it public shaming.

We don't know exactly how they're finding drivers, but it's unlikely they're using any particularly sophisticated tracking technology. Rather, it seems that they're doing simple Twitter keyword searches, looking for keywords.

In some cases, they find people who have voiced their support for distracted driving awareness — in which case the NHTSA gives them kudos.

But in most of the cases, they're naming and shaming people who have publicly admitted to — and in some cases, bragged about — texting or tweeting or using Snapchat while driving.

Using social media to promote road safety is nothing new. But this specific tactic — unsolicited Twitter engagement from a federal agency — is something I haven't seen before.

Do people really brag about texting and driving?

It may sound hard to believe, but yes they do.

Many of the tweets the NHTSA responds to are people simply admitting to texting and driving, like this:

But then there are others who seem be bragging, or defiant, like these:

Or there are people who use social media to implicate others' bad habits behind the wheel, like this Tweeter:

All of those tweets drew responses from the NHTSA's Twitter account for different reasons — but again, the novel thing here is the one-on-one interaction with people who never expected to be engaged by a federal agency.

Could we see the same tactic applied in Canada?

An RCMP spokesperson said he's never heard of this tactic being used in Canada. But there's nothing stopping anyone from doing exactly the same thing here. 

Of course, monitoring social media for conversations about distracted driving takes resources. But any individual or organization can set up a saved Twitter search for relevant keywords, monitor it regularly, and interact in this very same way. 

And by filtering by location, local or regional law enforcement (or other agencies) could engage with just the people in their community.

It's also worth noting that the NHTSA — even though it's a U.S. federal agency — has publicly called out at least one Canadian for distracted driving. A few days ago, they publicly shamed a Twitter user who appears to be from Manitoba:

So in a sense, we've already seen this tactic applied in Canada.

Does this kind of online public shaming work?

That's the big question. And it really depends on what the goal is.

If the goal is reducing distracted driving accidents, the effectiveness of the NHTSA's efforts will be a really tricky thing to measure. Much of the interaction is one-on-one, with the agency engaging directly with individual Twitter users, so any differences this campaign makes likely won't show up in distracted driving statistics.

That said, this is an awareness campaign, as part of Distracted Driving Awareness Month in the U.S., and a broader Department of Transportation initiative.

And on that front, this type of public shaming seems incredibly effective. Tonally, it's very different from a public service announcement. And frankly, it's very different from the way many of us expect official government Twitter accounts to operate.

By catching distracted drivers off-guard, calling them out, and admonishing them in a very public way, it seems they've managed to catch a lot of people's attention.

How else have we seen "naming and shaming" on social media?

The author Jon Ronson has said social media has led to a "renaissance" in public shaming.

And we've seen a lot of high-profile examples in recent years. Public shaming has led to people losing their jobs and their relationships. There have been really tragic outcomes.

At the same time, we've public shaming used as a tool — by retailers who post camera footage of shoplifters, for example.

Or by everyday citizens who post photos of cars parked in fire lanes, or in crosswalks.

There's a certain vigilante feel to a lot of the everyday public shaming we see online. You see something you perceive as an injustice, you snap a photo, and you put it online for the world to see — and judge.

And I think it's precisely why the NHTSA campaign is so striking. They're taking a common tactic for vigilante justice, and as a federal agency, adopting it as their own.

And if it helps awareness about distracted driving, I can get behind that. 

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