Social-media justice: Engaged citizen’s Twitter bot outs bad drivers caught on local streets

Social-media justice: Engaged citizen’s Twitter bot outs bad drivers caught on local streets
Photo by Caleb Caldwell

It’s outing dangerous drivers one Tweet at a time.

A Brooklyn Heights cyclist and civic guru created a Twitter bot that spits out motorists’ traffic violations so concerned users can identify reckless individuals who cruise their local streets.

Brian Howald, a member of Community Board 2’s Transportation Committee, made the @HowsMyDrivingNY account so people can easily search the city’s “Open Parking and Camera Violations” database — which dates back to 2000 and documents illegal behavior such as running red lights, speeding in school zones, and not paying parking meters — after news broke that the motorist who fatally smashed into two kids crossing a Park Slope street last month did so inside a vehicle that had already racked up several infractions.

“In the aftermath of the crash in Park Slope, several people on Twitter combed through the city’s open-data portal for violations associated with the car, and found it had been cited 12 times,” said Howald, who in December outed Bay Ridge state Sen. Marty Golden for allegedly impersonating a police officer as he tried to pull the cyclist over in a bike lane. “It started a conversation about how often people driving dangerously near schools, or parking illegally. I wanted to make it easier for people to have access to this data.”

The account, which has garnered nearly 1,000 followers since its March 23 debut, asks Twitter users to provide a license-plate number the bot then uses to retrieve data including the amount of violations dealt to the vehicle associated with the plate.

Curious locals’ Tweets must follow a simple format that includes tagging the bot and entering a vehicle’s plate number and state in order to generate a response, according to Howald, who said the technology does the heavy lifting for people who quickly scribble down or snap a photo of a rogue car’s plates.

“It allows people to access information from their phones at the moment it’s most relevant,” he said.

The bot’s responses break down a vehicle’s infractions by type, making the important distinction between less dangerous violations such as failing to feed a meter and more serious offenses including pumping the gas in a school zone, its creator said.

“The fact that someone shows up in the database doesn’t make them a bad driver — someone who doesn’t pay the meter is different from someone who speeds next to a school,” he said.

Howald, also a software engineer, hopes that his handle helps get unsafe drivers off the road by exposing repeat offenders’ behavior before it leads to deadly crashes, he said.

“This account helps make people aware of just how often people are doing it, and getting away with it, before their actions results in somebody being injured or killed,” Howald said.

And the bot creator said he has one response to motorists who criticize him for putting them on blast — stop breaking the rules.

“If people don’t want to be held accountable for doing dangerous things, they shouldn’t be doing dangerous things,” he said.

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.