May 08, 2006

Driving etiquette

Now that the summer driving season is upon us, and I am going to be on the highway today, here are some musings on driving.

Driving means never being able to say you're sorry

We need a non-verbal sign for drivers to say "I'm sorry." There have been times when I have inadvertently done something stupid or discourteous while driving, such as changing lanes without giving enough room and thus cutting someone off or accidentally blowing the horn or not stopping early enough at a stop sign or light and thus creating some doubt in the minds of other drivers as to whether I intended to stop. At such times, I have wanted to tell the other driver that I was sorry for unsettling them, but there is no universally recognized gesture to do so.

If we want to thank someone, the raised flat upturned palm works. And there are so many ways to show annoyance at others, ranging from blaring the horn, angry yells, and rude gestures. But there is nothing that says sorry. I think we need one.

Any suggestions?

Car friendliness

When I am walking along the street and pass someone, people almost always make eye-contact, nod, smile, and say "hello" or "how are you?" But when people are in cars, they studiously avoid giving any sign that other people exist. If you stop at a light next to another car, or are cruising along a highway parallel to another car, everyone stares straight ahead. If by chance you make eye-contact, people quickly look away. Why this difference?

It is as if the inside of a car is considered a zone of privacy, although it is almost as public as standing in the street. I am not sure why this is but it does explain why people do things in cars (eat, read, comb their hair, put on makeup, pick their teeth, check for zits, etc.) that they might not normally do in public.

The only exceptions to this rule seem to be if there are friendly-looking dogs or small children in the car. The owners of such dogs tend to welcome attention, and nods and smiles are exchanged. Small children will also wave cheerily to you.

I have been trying a small experiment these last few days. I decided that when I stop at lights or am in a traffic jam, I would glance around and if I make eye-contact with people in adjoining cars, I would smile and nod, just as if I were passing them in the street. Interestingly, only one person so far has made eye contact with me, and we exchanged smiles and nods. Everyone else stares straight ahead, sometimes rapidly turning away after a very brief look.

I hope no one reports me to the police as this weird guy who is smiling at them while driving.

Merging on highways

I am sure everyone has experienced this on highways. You are driving along and see a sign that says your lane is closed ahead and to merge into the adjacent lane. What you will observe is that traffic in your lane will slow down and even stop long before the actual merge point, as drivers seek to blend into the other lane.

It seems to me that the most efficient thing to do is to drive right up to the point where your lane ends and then merge. If you start merging earlier, you are effectively making the amount of highway that has a reduced number of lanes even longer than it is, and thus slowing down your journey even more. But although no one has explicitly told me this, I get the feeling that to do this is impolite, as if I am jumping the queue. So although I feel that the sensible thing to do is to cruise right up to the end and then merge, I succumb to this pressure and merge earlier. Of course, it increases travel time usually by just a few minutes so time is not primarily the issue. The issue is why it seems to be considered impolite to merge early.

Could we start spreading the word that it is actually more sensible for everyone to merge as late as possible?


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I use the thank you gesture for sorry too. Not sure if it works though.

One day at a stoplight, it took a lot of gesticulating on the part of the driver in a neighboring car to get my attention in order to ask for directions! I look straight ahead because I feel that it is kind of intruding upon people's privacy to look into their cars.

A very valid point on merging - this straightforward logic that you have outlined never occured to me before.

Posted by arvin on May 8, 2006 10:11 AM

Regarding merging on highways, I have always had the exact opposite feeling. I feel you should merge as soon as possible to ensure a steady traffic flow. Let me explain.

If cars in the lane that need to merge go all the way up to the point the merge must occur, then the system is contingent on cars in the lane being merged into letting in cars from the other lane. In the ideal world, cars from the two lanes take turns. If you are in the lane being merged into, you MUST let in a driver from the other lane. However, we all know this does not happen. As a result, the ending lane slows to a creep as the front cars wait for somebody to let them in. A considerate driver in the merged-into lane will slow down and let in a car or two. This will slow his lane as well. The slowing propogates backward and cars bunch up. You now have slow creep in both lanes.

If cars merge as soon as possible, then there is no bottleneck at the merge point. The merge point is actually lengthened to be the point where the merge is known (sign, on-ramp, etc) all the way up to the lane size change. In congested traffic, merging depends on cars in the lane being merged into making room for other cars. If this change were allowed to be more gradual over a longer distance, the traffic disruption would be lesser than a sudden change to let in cars at the choke point. Highway driving is built on consistency. You want to avoid strong deviations from cruising as much as possible. Braking for somebody to let them in at the choke point is a strong deviation. Backing off a MPH or 2 over 1000 ft to make enough room for another car is much preferred.

Of course, we are both living in an ideal world. No matter what happens, there is going to be a driver that doesn't believe in the courtesy rule or someone who doesn't feel comfortable merging. All it takes is one car on the highway to slow down considerably and the traffic pattern is severely affected.

Posted by Gregory Szorc on May 8, 2006 10:13 AM

Mano, your etiquette instinct is correct -- people who drive in the closing lane right until the end are generally cursed at. I think the reason for this is that when there is a traffic jam, traffic is generally backed up for a mile or two before the forced merge point, so in effect people are jumping the line, just as they would be if they were driving on the shoulder. And in a sense, if there isn't actually a traffic jam, this behavior strikes me as even more dangerous, because by waiting till the last second there's a greater chance that the closing-lane driver will be driving much slower than the people in the lane he needs to merge into, and will risk causing an accident.

Someone ought to do a mathematical model of this traffic behavior and see which of us is right. :)

Posted by Erin on May 8, 2006 10:17 AM

I agree with (the other) Gregory. It's impossible to avoid some bottlenecking when you force one lane to merge into another, but without the aid of a stoplight or something at the merge point it seems easier to simply let cars merge as soon as they can. And hopefully people are nice enough to let the other cars in, although I must admit to not being that nice myself from time to time. A bigger problem, at least where I live, is that the signs don't give enough warning of an impending merge. I live near a heavily-traveled interstate which goes from three to two lanes, with signs giving maybe ten seconds of warning to merge. It's simply too busy most times of the day (and too many out-of-towners travel on it) for ten seconds to be enough. We natives know about it ahead of time, of course. Is that a common problem elsewhere? Is there a standard amount of warning that must be given?

Posted by Greg on May 8, 2006 10:42 AM

One of the driving courtesy issues that to me is the annoying is when people fail to signal before turning. Everyone forgets to do this occasionally, but some people, it seems, are too lazy or self centered to signal at all. I see no excuse for not signalling basically all of the time. When I have had to wait for someone who has chosen not to signal, I sometimes would like to indicate to the other person that I would have appreciated some warning from them. Other than honking my horn, which is obnoxious and confusing, it would be nice to have a hand signal for this as well. The signal should mean something like: "please do me the favor of signalling your intentions next time," or something to that effect. Any ideas?

Posted by Robert on May 8, 2006 08:01 PM

I also use the flat wave (with a sheepish head-droop) for “sorry”. I think that maneuver was even featured in an episode of “Seinfeld”, when traffic was congested during a Puerto Rican parade. :)

I tend to agree with Greg on the bottleneck effect, but I'm sure idle speculation would not be too reliable in any case. This is interesting too.

Posted by on May 8, 2006 10:05 PM

Using thank you gestures for 'sorry' is common in southern africa, both the upraised palm and the touching of the peak of an imaginary cap. The latter is open to misinterpretation though.

Posted by radhan on May 9, 2006 01:02 AM

How about etiquette for the Department of Transportation? Like, if you know I-280 is closed between I-75 and I-80, let's try to let people know *before* they leave the toll road turnpike and are left taking a 55mph rural highway 10 miles west to I-75?

I suppose I should be happy the Ohio DOT saved me like $0.80 on toll fees, but it was annoying to see the I-280 CLOSED sign immediately after passing through the toll booth.

One more reason I'll stay in Michigan.

Posted by Barry on May 9, 2006 04:57 PM

As a cyclist in a city where drivers tend not to be pushy enough, I find myself wishing for a hand signal that encapsulates "no, really, thanks for trying to let me through but everything would run more smoothly if you just go and I can fit behind you".

Posted by Eldan Goldenberg on May 9, 2006 06:13 PM

Ooh... driving talk. I can contribute.

In regards to merging, the goal is to merge without affecting the speed of any other cars; thus, not causing the domino braking effect. In heavy traffic, this is simply not possible. So if the traffic is heavy, just merge whenever a spot conviently opens up. You're going to cause braking no matter what. However, in moderate to light traffic, you should merge at your earliest possible conveniance into a spot large enough that you will not cause any cars to have to apply their brakes to adjust for your merging. Doing it as early as possible allows for the cars behind you to be able to pick and choose their spots for conveniant mergers that do not induce braking in others. (Note: you should also merge at speed.)

Of course, there is always going to be that Ford Explorer driven right up to the orange barrels at a full stop with his or her turn signal on (maybe not), cell phone on ear, neck craned all the way around, complaining into the phone about the lack of courtesy of other drivers, looking for a place to peel rubber and cut-off the flow of traffic. These people just exist and nothing can be done for them. Also note, that these people (like all other people) claim to be excellent drivers.

Posted by Jeremy Smith on May 10, 2006 01:14 PM

Mano, I also experience the same lack of common friendliness on the roads. So I try to improve the situation by turning on my favouite CDs and singing loudly a cheerful melody.
Road does not seem to be a nice place for communication and most drivers are too concentrated either on the road or on their own thoughts and problems that they just ignore everything but the highway ahead. Many people after closing the door of the car and starting to drive are as if moving to another world: where there is no communication except for communication with traffic cops and their own steering wheel. One more thing that I have also observed is that on a highway people regard each other more like competitors or like rivals. After leaving their cars they may be found chattering together in a friendly manner at the round- the - corner bar. In Russia, for example, ( my friend's wife comes from there) the drives has have their own language of communicating. And for example they apologize by winking the back turn signal or honking three times. Well, as for eye contact, I do not know why you are still hoping for it - we have those tinted cars and people inside them feel like in the tank. I wish I could meet such a sensitive driver as you on the road, but the chances our road will cross are too minimal.

Posted by Killer Content on May 12, 2006 09:29 AM

> If you are in the lane being merged into,
> you MUST let in a driver from the other lane.

Maybe in your state it works like this, but in my state as well as in most other countries it works just the opposite: a car that does not change lane has the right of way, a car that changes lane must yield. It is only the courtesy of drivers in the lane being merged into that lets others in. If two cars change into one lane simultaneously, the one on the right has the right of way.

> Mano, your etiquette instinct is correct -- people
> who drive in the closing lane right until the end
> are generally cursed at. ... in effect people are
> jumping the line, just as they would be if they
> were driving on the shoulder.

But the fact is that they are not driving on the shoulder, they drive by the rules whereas you invented some rules of your own, built yourself a virtual queue and require that everyone should stay in it. Then you curse drivers who simply use a lane they have right to drive on.

> One of the driving courtesy issues that to me
> is the annoying is when people fail to signal
> before turning.

Right on the money! I always let people into my lane when they use blinkers properly, but I usually close the gap in front of me if they do not. I do not care how friendly they are or do they use gestures to show that they want in. Turn indicators are designed specifically to show driver's intentions, use them for Pete's sake. No blinkers - no compassion from me. I want to remind those who is about to curse me, that one who does not change the lane has the right of way. As simple as that.

Posted by Michael on June 15, 2006 08:27 PM

>>I always let people into my lane when they use blinkers properly, but I usually close the gap in front of me if they do not

- If you want to experiment with yourself - just try occasionally to let non-blinkers in too. 10% is OK.

- I myself always let people in, whenever their bumpers are just a bit in front of mine or just in line.

- Blinkers are not important for me at all. I never thrust them. People engage blinkers in wrong way too often. But their "car body speaking" is rarely confusing. So I depend on it. Not on blinkers.

don, toronto

NB: Preview did not help me to make this text nice

Posted by don on January 19, 2007 06:21 PM

Hi Mano:
I did a google search on merge point signage for a work related task and came upon your blog. You have a very valid point in that if drivers use both lanes and merge with equal access at the merge point, the road operation will be most efficient. This is called a "Late Merge" and has been proven to be effective during congested times. At other times with low trafic flow and high speeds there is concern that drivers may become confused about who must yield. The link below points to a study that recommended a "Dynamic Late Merge" sign that only lights up during congested times and normal merge rules to apply at all other times. This scheme is being applied, mainly in freeway construction zones, by a number of state DOTs with added enhancements such as speed sensors that provide feedback on traffic speeds ahead to motorists.

Posted by Chandra on August 11, 2008 09:05 PM

Hello Mano
Merging is still considered THE most dangerous maneuvre. It is followed by overtaking and passing through the intersection.

Posted by James on June 22, 2010 01:56 AM

I hate it when some people don't use their blinkers properly (or don't use them at all!!!). They need to understand that it's the only way for other dirvers to know of their manuevres!

I don't know if they are doing it out of laziness or just to show off how cool they can drive :(

Posted by Busy Teacher on July 13, 2010 09:16 PM

Mano, I do stupid moves on the road way too often. When I have done something likely to annoy another driver, I wait till I catch his eye and then I act like I'm slapping myself on the face--doing myself what he probably would like to do.

If that doesn't work, it at least makes me feel better.

Posted by Ray Cox on August 7, 2010 11:20 AM