Bumper stickers, road rage & digital messaging

Bumper stickers, road rage & digital messaging
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The remote control
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June 19, 2008 If you tend to shy away from cars covered in bumper stickers, you now have good reason. New research has unearthed an interesting correlation between drivers who personalize their cars with bumper stickers and personal markers of private territory, and those prone to road rage. Now the bumper sticker is being taken to new levels with personalized electronic messages able to be displayed at will – such as the highly inflammatory gesture pictured. Is this a positive thing? Will our roads be enhanced by our newfound ability to communicate our feelings more effectively to other road users?

Firstly, let’s look at bumper stickers. From wikipedia: Considerable variation exists around the world as to the context and purpose of stickers. On some vehicles, some stickers are like trophy signs of WWII aeroplanes, either of locations visited or actions completed. They have also been extensively applied to rear windows as well, where legislative measures have not banned such use. For instance in Sweden that is the normal place to put them and the bumper sticker is actually called "bakrutedekal" (rear window decal). More recently, bumper stickers have become a route for advertising and a few companies offer to match car owners to advertisers willing to pay for the ad.

In Israel, one of the most popular songs of all time is Shirat Hasticker ("The Sticker Song") by Hadag Nachash, a song composed entirely of bumper sticker slogans. Variants of the bumper sticker have developed in recent years, including vinyl decals meant to be applied to a car's rear windshield, and chrome emblems to be affixed to the body of the car itself, generally on the rear (the "Jesus fish" is a popular example of this).

Bumper stickers and other forms of vehicle customization are designed to provide messages about the driver to other road users – his or her preferences, identity, and personal brand.

People seemingly love to customize, but apparently, at least according to the research from Colorado State University, the high level of personalization that has fueled the automotive aftermarket to such immense proportions is largely designed to signify the driver’s personal territory. A highly personalized automobile is clearly owned by the driver, the driver’s beliefs are law in their domain and the car is their personal territory.

Even more fascinating was the news that the predictor of road rage was simply the number of bumper stickers, not their content – that is, promoting peace and love was just as much a predictor of road rage as promoting less restrictive gun laws. It seems highly territorial people are those most likely to be involved in a road rage incident and when they do so, they are tapping into fairly primal response mechanisms when they find themselves simultaneously in private territory (their car) and a public space. They are forgetting that the public road is not theirs, and are exhibiting aggressive territorial behavior that normally would only be (even remotely) acceptable in defending their personal territory.

The more markers a car has, the more aggressively the person tends to drive when provoked.

With two companies entering the market in the last twelve months with what are essentially one-way electronic messaging systems for cars, this modern day manifestation of the 70-year old bumper sticker appears set to cause some consternation on public roads.

In the US, Korea, Japan, Scandinavia and other technologically-advanced countries we are witnessing the evolution of personal communications into a host of different form factors, while in less technologically-advanced nations, the mobile phone is selling by the hundreds of millions. People across the world who have never had telephone landlines, are buying their first mobile phone this year – a billion mobile phones will be sold in 2008 and half the world’s 6.7 billion people already have them. The world is currently undergoing immense technological upheaval, massive shifts in information access and we suspect, some new and sociologically-challenging uses of technology will evolve. This is one such questionable use of technology.

We first reported on au-my’s Drivemocion in July 2007, reflecting that displays that can be changed to reflect a given mood or express individuality or emotion had made their way into our jewelery, our clothes and our cars (Toyota's patented personal expression system for cars), and that DriveMocion was a variation on the latter using emoticons to convey a driver’s emotions to other road users.

It’s business model was a bit daggy (two emotions $12.99, three emotions $16.99 five emotions $19.99), and it could so easily have been done with a small microprocessor so users could develop their own messages if they really wanted to say something.

Scrolling electronic messaging launched onto the American market at roughly the same time as both stand-alone units and a display integrated into a number plate surround, both from Roadmaster.

The Roadmaster 12 volt and hardwired scrolling system could equally be used in a shop window as the parcel shelf of a car, and comes with 98 pre-programmed phrases, including "Help me", "Slow down", "Turning left", "Your lights aren’t working", "Baby on Board", and it also lets you write five interchangeable messages of up to 120 characters each of your own. Messages can be combined or repeated and the speed and brightness of the LED can be adjusted with the included wireless remote. The scrolling systems are easy to install and include 12 Volt hardwiring.

We can see countless uses for the scrolling messaging system from salespeople passing out their contact details, selling the car you are driving, hawking products for a sales network … the technology enables almost anyone to leverage their car to advertise something or promotoe a cause, or support their football team, or … do their own thing as a free individual expressing themselves.

Now Drivemocion has released a new advanced system, complete with the highly provocative digital middle finger pictured. Firstly, it is our public duty to warn against using such a sign unless you know the local culture well. This is a gesture that will seriously insult someone in some areas of the world, so it might pay to check out the local customs if you’re planning on using it in the Gulf States, frinstance.

Just the same the digital middle digit was really only slightly more insulting than the company’s original five-emotion version which offers the option of calling someone an “idiot.”

This is a technology that could easily fuel unhealthy discourse on the roads, and we can see some severe injury occurring if this product is used with abandon. Giving the finger to anyone is a foolhardy pastime, whether it’s delivered digitally or not. Just under one in 100 people has spent time in jail in the United States – these people are not strangers to violence, so flashing a sign like that at a fellow road-user is in our mind like playing Russian Roulette – keep playing and eventually you’ll challenge someone’s personal space just a little too much. Of course, anger isn’t the only emotion you can display – there’s also flirting, happy/thankful, sad/sorry and cheeky – but you can bet that flashing the anger sign is gonna add fuel to the fire in at least 50% of cases.

Au-may’s company offerings are focussed on using advanced technologies to enhance road usage, but there’s another product in the range that leaves us feeling equally uneasy. The company’s DVD visor (see elsewhere on their site) enables one to watch DVDs from the drivers seat. It’s a great way to retrofit multimedia to automobiles which don't have space in the dashboard ... very clever ... but very likely to result in people driving and watching DVDs at the same time. People can be killed on the roads quite readily enough without providing them readymade tools with which to exercise their stupidity.

Anyway, whether you think the Drivemocion Animated messaging system is silly or you want to buy one, it’s an interesting new addition to the catalogue of artistic personal expression. Perhaps eventually we’ll have some road users with hi-def big screens so they can more effectively communicate their individuality to those around them.

We wonder though, is the road the place to do it?

Some cities have already banned advertising and external signage. There’s already enough attention-seeking behaviour on the road without allowing people a 10,000 watt sound system and external multimedia on their vehicles. The roads are dangerous enough!

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