Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Driving 101: Courtesy is a double-edged sword

Frequently, we find ourselves in situations behind the wheel where a little courtesy can go a long way. Think about those situations where you are waiting to turn onto a side street and the backed up traffic traveling the other way makes a hole just big enough for you to slip through. Or perhaps you have been in one of those situations where you arrive at a stop sign at the same time as another driver and they wave you through. Another common one is when someone making a turn waves you around them when it is safe to pass. All of these are situations that many drivers come across with some regularity, but how often do we really think about just how those situations impact other drivers?

Let's take a moment to break down some of those common courtesy situations and look at just how an oblivious but courteous driver can raise the blood pressure of everyone around them through their random act of kindness.

An all too common scenario is where the overly courteous driver disregards the rules of right of way to allow other drivers into the flow of traffic during already congested times. Frequently, this happens at freeway on-ramps or at intersections where more than two streets come together and form some of the odder traffic patterns, but has also been known to happen just at your standard 4-way stop. While allowing one car to pass is probably not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, oftentimes these drivers allow several cars to squeeze into the flow of already congested traffic, adding to the back-up. While the driver might think they are being kind, they are also contributing to further congestion and encouraging bad behavior from those cutting in front of them.

Another common situation happens at stoplight controlled intersections where there is no left-turn signal. Oftentimes, the overly courteous driver, who is traveling straight, will wait after the light turns green to allow cars from the opposite direction making a left turn to go first. Once again, while this driver thinks he is just being a nice guy, what he is actually doing is creating additional congestion. If there is only one lane of travel in each direction, the driver is literally holding up traffic behind them. If there are multiple lanes of traffic, then even if one lane of traffic is stopped, there is no guarantee that the other lanes will also be, creating a situation where the person turning left may not actually be able to proceed while the overly courteous driver blocks the flow of traffic in their lane, causing the people behind them to have to change lanes to proceed through the light.

One final situation, also having to do with left turns, involves usually smaller two-lane roads. Approaching an intersection or a driveway, the overly courteous driver will see someone in opposite direction sitting with their turn signal on, looking to make a left turn. Behind the overly courteous driver is one or two cars followed by a long stretch of empty road. Despite the large gap that will appear but momentarily, the overly courteous driver decides that he should stop and allow the opposing traffic to complete the left hand turn. The result here is to slow down the flow of traffic when the person making the left would have had plenty of opportunity to do so a mere few moments later.

The primary concern in these situations is really two-fold. One, the overly courteous driver believes that they are doing a public good, but does not realize that they their behavior actually contributes to traffic congestion, which in many major cities is only getting worse and worse. Two, the overly courteous driver is both reinforcing the bad behavior of other drivers, encouraging them to disregard right of way rules and other traffic laws in favor of whatever they can get away with.

Now, I am not saying that we should all drive like assholes. On the contrary, we would all benefit from exhibiting a level of courtesy towards our fellow drivers. There is, however, a balance to be struck between being courteous towards only those in front of us and being courteous to all drivers on the road. Our actions in the real world have consequences and therefore we should be increasingly aware of our surroundings, especially when behind the wheel. By being aware of not only what traffic is doing in front of you, but also having awareness of traffic behind and to the sides, we can make better decisions that err towards improving the flow of traffic and minimizing congestion. Making these conscious choices that put the overall flow of traffic above the convenience of individual drivers will ultimately benefit everyone in keeping traffic moving smoothly and helping to minimize congestion.