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sog’s (Unconventional) Highway Etiquette

It has recently – as in, the past few days – come to my attention that there is a distinct lack of etiquette amongst today’s highway drivers. In truth, it came to my attention long ago, but given that I just spent two plus days behind the wheel let’s just let that slide.

The contributory factors to this lack of etiquette are varied; substandard education, cellphones, human nature, you name it. But the fact of the matter is that it’s 2007, and we should all expect more of our Interstate driving experience. Given that driving instructors will teach you only the basics, I felt compelled to flesh out – as best I can – some of the nuances.

To that end, I’ve compiled what I feel might be some useful guidelines – and feel free to chime in in the comments with your own suggestions. They’re aimed at the worst of the drivers I encountered over the past few days, rather than yourselves, but maybe it’ll spur some useful discussion.

On Being Passed

For reasons that are their own, some drivers do not like being passed. They might try to block you from passing them, but more commonly they’ll attempt to match speed as they are in the process of being passed (and interestingly, they usually slow way down after they are, in fact, passed). Some suggestions for any of you that might feel that way.

  1. Some cars will want be comfortable with higher speeds, there’s nothing wrong with that.
  2. A car going faster than you does not diminish you in any way (unless you’re racing, in which case it diminishes you greatly).
  3. Rather than speed up, you might try slowing a mile an hour or two to facilitate the passing process.
  4. You may also consider, particularly when larger vehicles such as trucks are involved, signaling the passing driver with your high beams when he’s achieved sufficient distance

On Convoys

On longer drives, you may find yourself joining dynamic aggregations of two or more cars, for safety and – perhaps – entertainment purposes. These ad-hoc collectives will typically share similar comfort levels in terms of velocity, and mitigate risk the risk of tickets by traveling together, much as antelopes and other plains animals minimize the threat of predators by traveling in herds.

Some general rules and thoughts regarding convoys:

  1. There are two primary roles in any convoy: point (the car out front), and rear (the car in back). In convoys of more than two cars, cars will obviously occupy positions between these two.
  2. The lowest risk role, in terms of the likelihood of earning a ticket, is the middle slot, followed by rear, and finally point. This is due to the fact that the most likely positioning for a police car is stationary, in which case the car on point is the most likely target (unless it’s a multiple cop car trap, in which case you’re all at risk). The second most likely possibility is the rogue cop car, one cruising the highway in search of speeders; in this case, the rear car is most at risk. In all cases, the middle car is the least likely to be issued a ticket.
  3. It may seem logical, then, to try and secure – if possible – a middle position in any convoy. This is indeed a recommended practice, but it is also unreasonable to expect one member of the convoy to bear a disproportionate amount of risk. You should, therefore, “volunteer” for higher risk positions by deliberately assuming them. The car on point may in fact “suggest” this by perceptibly slowing from the previously established acceptable velocity, allowing someone else to take the lead for a while.
  4. If, due to congestion or other factors, one member of your convoy becomes hemmed in by traffic, it is your obligation to create – if possible – a reentry point for him in said convoy. Slow to create a space and use your brights as necessary to signal.
  5. Depending on the distance traveled with the convoy, it is also customary to give a honk and/or wave if you exit from the group early.

On High Beams

Using your high beams to indicate displeasure or frustration with another driver is both illegal and potentially dangerous, so I recommend against it (and do not use them in this fashion myself).

If, for some reason, you fell you’re entitled to a special exemption to the rules in a direct violation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, here are some rules you can follow to minimize your offense.

  1. The little blue headlights icon on your dashboard means the high beams are on. If it’s lit when other cars – coming or going – are in sight, you deserve to be brighted yourself.
  2. Brighting the car in front of you just after you arrive at that position is unacceptable; it should be given between one and two minutes to complete any necessary passing and repair to one of the travel lanes.
  3. Brighting the car in front of you when it in turn has multiple cars in front of you is unacceptable; before using your nuclear option in terms of driver to driver communication, you may want to determine whether the driver you’re going to bright is actually the problem.
  4. If you bright the driver in front of you, and said driver moves to the right to allow you to pass, you must pass. Brighting drivers and then dithering around in the passing lane is completely unacceptable.

On Lane Usage

While our highway systems are not the equal of some of those you’ll find abroad – particularly in Germany – they are more than adequate for most domestic travel if used appropriately. The difficulty, of course, is that very few individuals use them appropriately.

Drivers today seem almost oblivious to what lane they are in; I’ve even had friends freely admit to traveling in the passing lane, and express surprise at my indignation. Clearly, these people have never tried to get anywhere on I-84 in Connecticut (which is populated by the worst offenders of the rules below in the country, perhaps the world).

If you’re at all unclear on the rules of lane usage, here are some suggestions.

  1. Within legal and – importantly – practical limits, you have the right to travel the speed you wish
  2. You do not, however, have the right to travel the speed you wish in the lane you wish
  3. If the roadway is not congested, and you’re going roughly (+/- 3 MPH) the same speed as the car to your immediate right, you’re in the wrong lane. Pull over.
  4. If it takes you more than 60 seconds to pass someone, you’re in the wrong lane. Pull over.
  5. If you’re on a cellphone, Blackberry or other device and you’re in the passing lane, you’re in the wrong lane. Pull over.
  6. If the roadway is not congested, and you’re in the passing lane for more than a few minutes, you’re in the wrong lane. Pull over.
  7. If you’re intentionally trying to obstruct traffic in the passing lane to “make it more safe,” you’re in the wrong lane. Pull over.
  8. If other vehicles are passing you on the right, you’re in the wrong lane. Pull over.
  9. If you learned to drive in Connecticut, and you’re in the left hand lane, chances are you’re in the wrong lane. Pull over.

The net? Stay out of the passing lane. Except for passing. How hard can that be?

On Passing

Given the reality that different drivers have different comfort levels regarding speed, passing is an inevitable part of the driving experience. Done correctly, it should be a simple and painless process for both drivers. Done incorrectly, it introduces uncertainty and – more problematically – danger into the equation. A few thoughts on passing.

  1. Passing should be done as quickly and efficiently as possible; if you’re only going a mile an hour faster than the car you’re to pass, and it will take several minutes to effect a pass, ask yourself whether you actually need to make the pass in question.
  2. While passing should be done as quickly as possible, it should be a smooth process. Highways are not Indy tracks, and quick cuts in and out of lanes are not going to win you any points.
  3. When confronted with obstinate drivers who are convinced of their right to travel in the passing lane, passing on the right is acceptable. It is imperative, however, that such transitions are effected quickly because bad drivers often do not account for the fact that they are to be passed on the right.

On Speeding

As inevitable as passing, speeding is a fact of life on today’s highways. Moreover, it’s my belief that this is tacitly acknowledged if not encouraged by today’s legal infrastructure. Set aside the fact that there are municipalities all over the country that appear to derive substantial revenues from the issuance of speeding tickets (yeah, I’m looking at you, Claverack), and consider the following: on any Interstate highway that issues tickets, there’s a very simple formula for restricting if not eliminating speeding tickets – time stamps. Stamp a time in on the ticket, and if they reach their destination before they should have they get a ticket (yes, you could still hang out at a rest stop for an hour and then speed, but is that really all that appetizing?). Simple, but never been enacted. Why? Because it’s in nobody’s best interests to curtail speeding.

Townships and municipalities lose out on ticket revenue, people and goods alike would take significantly longer to reach their destination, and insurance companies lose the ability to tax customers for their “bad behavior.” Not to mention the inconvenience.

So assuming that individuals will – and should be able to – speed on occasion, here are some suggestions.

  1. Be consistent. Do not range from the speed limit to 15 over to 5 under to 20 over; pick a small range and match that. This will allow other drivers to react appropriately to your progress.
  2. Do not be an idiot. I can’t stress this one enough. Whether it’s the guy that blows by going 110 or the SUV that passes you in a blizzard going 90, these people give legitimate speeders like you and me a bad name. Consider conditions: the weather, the traffic, your car, your tires, your relative alertness and so on when you determine your appropriate speed. And don’t go any faster than you need to.
  3. What is appropriate? This all depends on your comfort level. To be sure of not getting a ticket, keep it to 5 over. On the interstates, you’ll probably be ok at 8-10 over – probably. 10-15, you’ll occasionally get by, but are at a high risk of being stopped. 15+ and you’re almost certainly going to be issued a ticket. At 20+ in CT, as an FYI, you risk being taken to jail.
  4. If you’re going to speed, and particularly if you’re far from home, I highly recommend having an up-to-date registration on you. Just trust me on this one.

Categories: Travel.

  • http://gfmorris.net/ Geof F. Morris

    Hear, hear. I would add another: at night, when being passed, extinguish your lights briefly when the passing vehicle has safely cleared you. This will indicate to them that they can exit the passing lane. I noticed professional truckers doing this on one of my many late-night trips back from Nashville after a concert, and I’ve adopted it for my own. Every so often, a truck will actually pass me [far less often now that I'm driving an '07 WRX instead of my old '95 Nissan pickup ;)], and when I do it, I definitely feel the courtesy.

  • http://tomayko.com Ryan Tomayko

    Amazing bit of insight here, sog.

    Highways are not Indy tracks, and quick cuts in and out of lanes are not going to win you any points.

    This drives me crazy. I get the impression that some people believe they have to move from one lane to the next as quickly as possible. Here’s how it should work: turn on your blinker. Let it flash a time or two while simultaneously checking your mirrors and shoulder. (Don’t be an idiot when checking your mirrors. If some part of your body that is not your eyes is moving then you’ve got a configuration problem.) Next, start guiding your vehicle into the next lane at a steady pace. You want to be sliding into the next lane at a rate that makes your intent obvious to other drivers but no faster. When you’ve fully arrived in the destination lane, turn off your blinker.

    There’s many advantages to this style of lane change. First, people will be less likely to report you as intoxicated. Second, if you missed something in your mirrors, other drivers have plenty of time to alert you audibly – think of the other drivers’s horns as a special mirror without a blind spot. Third, drivers in the destination lane will often open up a spot for you instead of trying to screw you by tightening up – you’re respecting their space and safety and most people will reciprocate.

  • http://alexking.org Alex

    The lowest risk role, in terms of the likelihood of earning a ticket, is the middle slot, followed by rear, and finally point.

    A patrolman friend of mine in CA actually told me that the tail/rear position is the most vulnerable in many cases. If only one ticket is going to be issued, the last person in the convoy is the easiest to pull over.

  • http://www.michaeldolan.com Mike Dolan

    One other that drives me nuts is something I’ve only really seen in NYC metro areas. In NY, if you try to switch lanes (and there is no one in that lane by you) and out of courtesy actually use your turn signal indicator, most NYers in the other lane that you’re attempting to enter will speed up and cut you off. It’s an amazing nuance because they simply do not want you in front of them… but they weren’t going that speed to begin with. So in NY, I’ve learned that to both obey the law and actually change lanes you have to master the flip and cut. Flip on your turn signal and cut over at the same time to avoid some moron 500 feet behind you from flooring it and cutting you off… it’s a very odd survival requirement.

    P.S. I can’t stand driving in CT. Utah and Nebraska are hands down the best state to speed through with Utah having some scenery and Nebraska being the absolute most boring drive in the world.

  • http://redmonk.com/sogrady sogrady

    Geof: exactly. that was, actually, what i was trying to get at with this bit “You may also consider, particularly when larger vehicles such as trucks are involved, signaling the passing driver with your high beams when he’s achieved sufficient distance”. it’s a nice, common courtesy.

    Ryan: i second that practice – it’s almost exactly how i do it.

    Alex: interesting. i’ve never actually seen that happen, but i’ll keep it in mind.

    Mike: amen. as i tell people in Denver, NYC’s interesting because of how it handles jaywalkers. in Denver, for example, you can jaywalk and drivers will slow and accomodate you. in Boston, you’ll get an irritated honk, but that’s about it. in NYC, drivers will actually speed up to try and hit you ;)

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  • your mom

    One other courtesy more and more frequently neglected on the congested sideroads of the suburban NYC area nowadays is driving me flippy. When making a left turn against oncoming traffic, please, please please pull as close to the center yellow line as you can, thus allowing the cars behind you to pass you on the outside and continue on their merry way. We will be most grateful.

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  • BHAYES

    Awesome SOG!!!! If we could now come up with a way to distribute this to all of the offenders!!!

  • JayKay

    Very well detailed. You’ll be happy (or not) to hear that these errors occur on Canadian roads as well. My personal pet peeve is the, “I need to be in the right lane after a left hand turn so I’m just going to shmeer into that lane midturn.” Seriously, there should be remedial training for people.

  • Hez

    Great tips! As others have commented, it would be great if all offenders could see these bits of information and actually put them to use! You missed a Crucial subject, though: MERGING

    Originally from NY state, I’ve become extremely distressed at the amount of congestion caused here in NC due to lack of knowledge on how to properly merge so as not to impede the flow of traffic. May I suggest the following rules:

    When approaching a merge lane that is about to end, Move into the permanent lane ASAP *once you have achieved an acceptable rate of speed*

    Allow others to merge in front of you – all too often folks here become indignant and don’t want to allow anyone to merge. It pretty much goes hand in hand with the “merge asap” concept – if you wait until the very last second to leave the ending lane so as to pass those waiting patiently in the permanent lane, then naturally those waiting will not want to let you in front of them. Leave plenty of room between you and the car in front of you to allow others to enter, otherwise you will force them to obnoxiously wedge themselves all the way to the last possible moment

    Never, I repeat NEVER leave a lane that is permanent to use a merging or ending lane to pass and then attempt to get back in the permanent line.

    The amount of bottle-necking that occurs here in the Triangle NC area due to this simple concept of allowing on person in front of you in a merge situation to keep traffic moving is astounding. Do need to teach kids the unspoken rules of the road bc many parents obviously don’t follow them.