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Monique Keiran: A little peer pressure could work wonders

A century ago, people who drove automobiles unsafely on city streets were called jay-drivers.

Monique KeiranA century ago, people who drove automobiles unsafely on city streets were called jay-drivers. Like Toad of Toad Hall from the children’s book Wind in the Willows, they wandered all over the road, drove too fast or drove too slow, stopped and started unpredictably and caused mayhem — and consternation — among other road users.

Today, we call such drivers something else altogether. Occasionally, we call the cops, too.

Jay-driver was an insult. “Jay” meant rube or an uneducated, unsophisticated person. A jay-driver, therefore, was something of a hillbilly-type bumpkin far from his country pumpkin patch and now bumping and bumbling along “smart” city streets, endangering others.

Today, jay drivers often are DUI or DUD (driving using devices).

The number of instances of people texting or talking on cellphones while driving continues to grow, despite the four-year-old ban on using handheld devices behind the wheel in British Columbia. Numbers of tickets issued for distracted driving in the province doubled to 4,000 a month in 2012, up from 2,000 a month in 2010.

Threats of tickets and fines seem to have had little effect. It seems, once tucked into the womb-like capsule of a vehicle, people behave as they always have — as if nobody beyond the tinted windows and reflections could see them texting, talking on the phone, singing along to One Direction, applying makeup or eating lunch.

Of course, rules also somehow always seem to apply to other people or other situations. A perception exists that little immediate consequence and no embarrassment will result.

That question of embarrassment might suggest a solution.

Overt application of humiliation by governments to control public behaviour fell out of favour in the civilized world years ago — fortunately. Use of public stocks and other physical tools for public shame falls under the definition of degrading treatment and violates human rights.

But if the justice system (rightly) can’t make examples of distracted drivers by parading them in chains through Victoria’s streets or locking them into public stocks for days on end, what can modern-day upholders of the law do?

They can borrow the marketing expertise and example of private industry.

Marketing people have long known that shame, carefully engineered, can drastically change public perception and behaviour, and generate enormous profits. The Listerine empire, for example, was built on marketing campaigns that made bad breath — until then, merely unpleasant — cause for serious social anxiety.

Body odour, stained teeth and dirty shirt collars were likewise transformed into social taboos. Now, of course, marketers target aging as cause for soul-destroying angst.

Over the years, fear of judgment and ridicule by our peers has transferred billions of dollars from our pockets to corporations.

The Vancouver Police Department’s Stupid Combinations contest, asking the public to design postcards that illustrate the dangers of using a cellphone while driving, moves in the right direction. It identifies “jay” combinations.

However, it does so indirectly, without explicitly illustrating types of people. It might be too indirect to strike at the pride and self-esteem of sophisticated, media-savvy, modern-day folk; it might miss out on engineering fear of peer ridicule, as the folks pushing the Listerine brand and Wisk brand did so well.

In the end, police sting operations might be the immediate answer. Regular undercover operations that show up frequently, unexpectedly and without pattern, coupled with penalties that materially inconvenience offenders, would raise the likelihood and stakes of being caught. It might foster enough insecurity in drivers to overcome jay behaviour.

Aggressive media campaigns to generate peer pressure could serve to supplement those efforts.

And over the long term, we might succeed in changing our behaviour.

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