Sometimes courtesy by drivers creates uncertainty


Crossings aren’t the only situations in which confusion abounds about the rules of the road. (James Hohmann/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Robert Thomson
Columnist October 31, 2012

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Thanks for your Oct. 14 column on situations in which pedestrian/bicycle routes cross vehicular roads and the commonplace confusion about the relevant rules there.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Regrettably, such crossings aren’t the only situations in which confusion abounds about the rules of the road. Lately, I have noticed among motorists an epidemic tendency to substitute misguided politeness for simple adherence to traffic rules.

Case in point: I wished to turn left out of a bank parking lot onto the main drag. A large pickup was waiting to make a left into that same parking lot. The pickup driver, who had the right of way, had ample room to my left to execute his turn and clear the way for my left turn.

But no. The pickup driver, in militant politeness mode, was adamant that I must turn first. To break the unnecessary logjam, I did, but what if that big pickup had been blocking the view from my Corolla of something passing to his right? Bammo.

And don’t get me started on the few space cadets who, oh, so deferentially, treat cross street stop signs as four-way stops.

This is a major metro area, not some small town where everyone knows everyone else by name and thus might score friendliness points for this sort of silly Alphonse and Gaston routine. Generally speaking, if it’s your turn to proceed, you owe it to other motorists to do so. There needs to be more emphasis on rules-of-the-road literacy in our driver’s tests. (Also on the theoretically legal obligation to use turn signals. Now, wouldn’t that be polite!)

G.R. Jameson, Arlington County

DG: It’s a bit of a shocker. Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard from several travelers who complain they’ve been encountering people who are far too polite for everyone’s good.

I’m just not used to this. Over the years, many hundreds of travelers have complained to me about others’ behavior on the roads, rails and trails. But it’s extremely rare to hear that the miscreant’s motive was concern about another traveler.

My readers are far too willing to assume the worst about the strangers they encounter. And the most common assumption is that the other traveler is acting out of selfishness.

We could do a lot worse than have drivers put themselves in the shoes of pedestrians or consider what another driver needs do.

But Jameson, like Rhonda Krafchin of Fairfax in the Oct. 14 column, is making good points about situations in which courtesy creates uncertainty. First one traveler has to make sure the other driver is actually trying to help him. Then the traveler has to make sure that others nearby are aware of what’s going on and will respond in the same courteous way.

Too often, that’s asking too much of strangers.

redundant to signal?

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Regarding turn signals, I believe that if you are in the left or right turn lane, and you intend to turn left or right, a turn signal is not necessary and only consumes energy. If I am wrong, then the powers that be should install a third signal in our vehicles so we can tell others that we intend to go straight ahead in the straight ahead lanes.

Ralph Fisher, Alexandria

DG: Because we are all strangers out there, we need to convey all the information we can about our intentions. That’s why I suggest drivers max out on the use of turn signals. In the scenario that Fisher cites, the following driver almost certainly knows your intentions to turn. That driver can see the white arrows in the roadway or a sign that says traffic has to turn.

An oncoming driver or a pedestrian might not have that same view, so the turn signal is a very visible way to help him. And the planet should survive the additional expenditure of energy.

Add a stop

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I’d like to point out the proper name for the “right on red” law is “right on red after stopping.” All you have to do is go to a light-controlled intersection and watch the cars making a right on red without even slowing down to realize the “after stopping” part of the law is ignored by most drivers.

I would hope in the future you would refer to the law by its entire name and not the name most drivers interpret as “running a red to the right.”

I’ve seen drivers make a right on red without stopping, then make a U-turn, and then make another right on red without stopping so they don’t have to wait for the light to turn green on the road they were driving on.

And as you point out [Dr. Gridlock, Oct. 4], the law says you may make a right on red after stopping. It doesn’t say you must make a right on red after stopping. If it’s not safe, don’t do it.

Tim Terrell, Woodbridge

DG: I’ll see you and raise you, by endorsing the advice offered several years ago by letter writer Art McClinton of Annandale. He said that the right-on-red rule requires that a driver come to a stop, wait for oncoming traffic, see that no pedestrians are present and also observe there is no sign forbidding a right turn on red.

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