It’s time to confess: I’m beholden to my most successful blog posts, which sometimes feature a subject I don’t really care all that much about, but hey—if it gets good engagement and stimulates conversation, why not explore it again? That’s precisely the case with those yellow caution bumper stickers (or perhaps they’re magnets?) that have become increasingly common in recent years. My first article on the “STUDENT DRIVER” stickers collected dozens of comments within a few days, and I still get a new offhand remark every month or two. Most people agree: while it’s possible these yellow caution bumper stickers/magnets emerged to fulfill a genuine need, by this point most people exploit them. Since they’re available for peanuts on Amazon, the consumer has little at stake in buying them. They could just as easily devolve to an impulse buy before checking out the remaining items in the digital shopping cart. And, if the supply is greater than the genuine need, most of them are dishonest. The people behind the wheel are not, in fact, student drivers. I mean, is it really a good selling point if a Uber or Lyft driver has one of these yellow caution magnets on the back?
One thing about them deserves at least a little respect: they look legitimate. When I first began seeing them, my thought was they were a gift that accompanied the successful completion of a student driving course, only available to a special subset. They certainly had the look of a legally sanctioned caution sign, much like I remember getting stuck to the side of a car back when I attended drivers ed. But the stickers/magnets soon proliferated; I was encountering several in a day. No way there were that many student drivers. I was even willing to make allowances when I saw middle-aged, clearly experienced motorists behind the wheel: it probably was their kid who needed the “STUDENT DRIVER” yellow caution magnet, and they just didn’t bother taking it on or off depending on who was in control of the car.
Many of the comments on my first article speculated that it’s a deliberate, innocuous “psyop”, so that people can more easily sweet-talk law enforcement if they get pulled over for careless moves on the highway. I’ll admit that it certainly occurred to me. And it’s only innocuous in the sense that it’s less antagonistic than arguing with a cop after getting pulled over. (Besides, how long can you fool a cop? If a person tries to claim inexperience, then is forced to show a license that proves they’ve been driving for 20 years, won’t it look worse when they’re caught in a lie?) If a $2 sticker is all it takes for some people to justify driving carelessly in the hopes that it’ll shield them from culpability, I’d say we have good reason to expect ever-deteriorating statistics on vehicle collisions. Or maybe those of us who are assuming the worst from these yellow caution bumper magnets should just let it go. Regardless, it’s hard not to think it’s a bit unfair for those parents who are purchasing these labels in good faith, because they genuinely have a student or novice driver behind the wheel.
But, like most things that proliferate, it’s showing increasing evidence of turning into a meme. I noted the “lousy driver” magnet I saw not so long ago.
This one uses the same yellow caution coloring—it really does get one’s attention—but for a different purpose. Manual transmission in new vehicles is, at this point, rare in the United States. Comparatively few manufacturers even feature it; from what I can tell, it’s a customized request that often comes at extra cost. For many years, in the earliest days of automatic, it was more of a convenience than a technically superior option; manual transmission largely achieved better mileage, because the user could strategically pinpoint the optimal shift into a higher gear. But for the last ten years or so, automatic transmission has gotten so smart that it can achieve the timing better than a human user, so automatic has devolved into an increasingly obsolete alternative preferred mostly by hobbyists (and Europeans, for whatever reason). So the notion of using a clutch and briefly shifting into neutral is a novel sight for many young American drivers. And yes, during that brief period of gear shifting, the vehicle does tend to lurch back a foot or so before pushing forward. I know from experience; my first car was a stick. This yellow caution bumper sticker “THIS VEHICLE HAS A STICK SHIFT – Forgive me if I roll or stall” seems to involve a manual transmission driver’s confession that he or she isn’t all that good at the practice.
And here’s one in the spirit of the “lousy driver”.
Not quite an all-out meme campaign, since it doesn’t use the yellow caution symbology common to most of these stickers/magnets. But it has the same spirit and undoubtedly uses the “STUDENT DRIVER” stickers as inspiration.
Then there’s this obvious effort to deploy the yellow caution as memetic material.
Does the fact that the driver is singing imply that he/she is driving carelessly, or is the warning simply against the singing itself? Or is the driver of this car just trolling? (And by trolling, I don’t mean trolling the ancient yuletide carol.) The best and most effective modern memes aim for social commentary, and they are far more likely to achieve their point through humor. However, sometimes that humor comes from the gallows.
Look to the left of the license plate, below the tail light. I’ve seen something along these lines before: I think it was a bumper sticker that said “So many pedestrians, so little time”. Here’s a driver that is keeping good tally of its hits: no conventional pedestrians, but plenty of seniors, motorcyclists, disabled people, and lots of bicyclists. I suppose, if the American driving public must face down motorists with this attitude, we probably do need yellow caution signage to alert one another of every potential deficiency or vulnerability behind the wheel. But how do we know when they’re just jerking our chain?