Rules of the Road

When it comes to ‘the wave,’ be kind but drive wisely

Vehicles take turns driving through a four-way stop at the intersection of James Street and Meador Avenue on Thursday, July 14, in Bellingham.
Vehicles take turns driving through a four-way stop at the intersection of James Street and Meador Avenue on Thursday, July 14, in Bellingham.

Question: Would you please address the fact that politeness should not trump correct driving rules? I appreciate the fact that people in Bellingham are usually so polite on the roads, but this can also drive me crazy at times. There are so many times that the other driver on the road has the right of way, but stops and tries to get me to move first by waving me on.

Answer: I’m all for polite and courteous drivers. The last thing we need on the road are drivers who take every perceived error from other motorists as a personal insult and then react as if defending five generations of their family’s honor.

That being said, the most polite thing a driver can do is follow the rules of the road. Think of traffic rules not just as a law put in place by the government, but as a shared set of values that drivers rely on to understand each other. Some drivers, intending to be polite, violate these shared values with “the wave.”

Let’s be clear about what I mean by “the wave.” I’m not talking about a friendly gesture acknowledging that another driver has the right of way. I’m talking about waving someone else through a four-way intersection, even though you were the first one there. Or even worse, stopping at an intersection even though you don’t have a stop sign and waving through the driver who is required to stop.

If you’re one of the extremely nice drivers that offer other motorists “the wave,” consider this: When you wave another driver on even though you have the right of way, you’re essentially asking them to violate traffic laws based on the gesture of a stranger. Personally, I’m uncomfortable with that. It’s sort of like an adult getting a hamster as an unrequested gift. Do you accept the hamster and deal with the consequences, or reject it and come off as an ungrateful jerk?

Here’s what happens in my brain when I get “the wave” at a four-way stop. I pull up to the stop sign, doing my best to pay attention to who got there first. I watch the car that stopped just before me, calmly waiting my turn. Then the driver in that car waves at me. Now I’m confused. Was I wrong about the arrival sequence at the intersection? Did his car break down? Is this a set-up for an intentional collision by someone hoping to commit insurance fraud? By now I’ve spent so much time thinking about why he’s waving that I’m sure he’s going to give up on the wave and take his turn. Do I go? If I go right when he gives up on me and decides to go, who is at fault in our crash? As you can see, a simple wave with the best intentions can cause an abundance of driving anxiety.

Maybe once we make eye contact with another driver we feel an obligation to make some sort of courteous gesture to let them know how nice we are. And the easiest kind gesture seems to be “the wave.” Perhaps we should come up with a new signal that means, “I’m a nice person, but I’m still going to go before you because I have the right of way.” Oh, wait, we already have that signal; it’s called a smile and the law.

Was that a bit too snarky? Maybe. The point is, whenever we diverge from our agreed set of rules about driving, we put ourselves and others at risk. Usually drivers violate the rules out of disregard for the law, but even when violated out of politeness, the end result can still be a crash. As always, be kind and drive wisely.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.