Can a driver be too polite?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | May 01, 2011

Dear Tom and Ray:

I read your column all the time and value your opinion (especially if you side with me!). My husband (whom I call Bubba, if you are interested) frequently will stop to let someone else go first at intersections, when he is the one with the right of way. He feels he is being polite, but I, on the other hand, think it just creates confusion and slows the flow of traffic. What do you guys think? Thanks for listening to my troubles! -- Anita


TOM: Does Bubba only do this when the other driver is a cute young woman? Because if that's the case, we might have to side with him.

RAY: You're right, Anita. One of the keys to making this whole driving thing work is predictability. You need to be able to predict, for instance, that an oncoming driver is going to stay in her own lane as she drives past you.

TOM: You need to be able to predict, with certainty, that the person making a left turn across your lane is going to wait until you pass. Not that you don't keep an eye on him just in case he's a moron or on the phone, but we rely on that predictability to prevent chaos and keep traffic moving.

RAY: So when Bubba violates the expectations of other drivers, even if he's just trying to be nice, he's increasing unpredictability. And that means someone else on the road may be surprised by what's happening. Which can cause an accident.

TOM: Here's an example: You're driving down the road, and someone's trying to exit a driveway. You decide to be nice, so you stop and wave the person out. That's thoughtful. But the person behind you has no idea that you might stop in the middle of the road for no apparent (to him) reason, and he smashes into the back of your car.

RAY: Well, legally, it's his fault for not noticing that you stopped. But you created an unnecessary, and unpredictable, hazard. The right thing to do would have been to drive by, and let the driveway dweller pull out when the road was clear of traffic.

TOM: That doesn't mean we shouldn't be nice to each other on the road. We should! When there's a choice that's not dictated by right of way, or when no other moving vehicles are going to be affected, by all means, do the nice thing. Anything we can do to decrease the number of middle fingers flying on our roadways is worth doing.

RAY: But tell Bubba that when he has the right of way, he should take it so that he doesn't confuse other drivers. And if he wants to flirt with young women at intersections, tell him we suggest a nice, warm smile as he drives by. And the universal hand signal for "Call me later."

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