The use of bumper stickers as a means of self-expression may be getting to the point where it's going to create social conflict or a spate of automobile accidents. This thought occurred to us after two sightings within a single hour. The first was of a sticker that read, "I'd Rather Be Killing Communists." The second one said, "I'd Rather Be Reading Jane Austen." There isn't room on the same highway for the sensibilities traveling in those two cars, no matter if it's eight lanes wide.

Years ago bumper stickers were devoted primarily to advertising political candidates, geological formations and freaks of nature ("I Visited the Gates-of- Hell Gorge." "We Saw the Two-Headed Brahma Bull."). More serious themes were dealt with by roadside billboards andsigns. Highway literature reached its fullest flowering in the famous Burma- Shave quatrains, which were strung out along highways, each line on a separate little sign: "Within This Vale / Of Toil / And Sin / Your Head Grows Bald / But Not Your Chin. -- Burma Shave." The corporate resources of Burma Shave produced some of the finest roadside verse in history; examples of it have been preserved in the Smithsonian. (Unfortunately, the same wasn't done with ancient works, most of which we suppose tended toward exhortation: "Break Those Rocks / Swing Those Axes / And Don't Forget / To Pay Your Taxes. -- Your King, Xerxes of Persia.")

With the decline of road signs, everyone felt free to be his own billboard and Burma Shave combined, a rolling advertisement for himself and his preferences. Thus began the "I'd Rather Be . . . " bumper stickers. The first we can recall was "I'd Rather Be Sailing" (read it: "Don't judge me by this old Chevy Malibu; I am the owner of a sailboat."). After that came the deluge: I'd Rather Be Skydiving ("What -- you're afraid to?"), Quilt-Making, Clog-Dancing, Rabbit-Hunting, Turkey-Trapping, Eating Oysters, Playing Quoits, Wrestling Alligators, Making Profits, Manufacturing Bumper Stickers.

It occurs to us that this may be yet one more area of controversy over whether the great reforms of the 1960s did or didn't leave things better than they were before. All that welcome billboard-bashing and beautification for which we were and remain truly grateful. Did it simply drive the billboards onto the bumpers?