There are many sins committed by Vancouver drivers. Some signal at the last moment, or don’t signal at all. They come to a complete stop before turning right – even when they have the right of way and the intersection is clear. They may speed past you in the right lane knowing full well that the parked cars ahead will force them to push their way back into traffic. Some have little regard for pedestrians and signs.
But nothing says “I am violating the shared-road contract and I couldn’t care less about you” like the withholding of the courtesy wave.
I live in a neighbourhood of narrow streets with parking on both sides. This is common across the city. When two cars approach each other from opposite ends of the block, someone has to give.
Civilized people know how to do this. When you see the oncoming car, you may slow down and scan the block for a stretch of exposed curb to duck into. The expectation, of course, is that the oncoming driver is doing the same. If there is no space ahead on your side of the street but space on the opposite side of the road, it’s reasonable to expect the oncoming driver to pull over and allow you to pass. When that happens, that driver deserves an acknowledgment of your gratitude, ergo, a wave. A smile or a nod combined with a wave is even better. At night, you may dim your lights as a sign of your appreciation because the oncoming driver may not be able to see you wave.
Because it’s more difficult to see the open space between parked cars at night, you may consider not proceeding until the approaching car has passed you at the top of the block. Do that and you really deserve a wave. And yes, the risk is that another car may follow, and another – with those drivers assuming you are some sort of dupe or asleep at the wheel. They should wave to you as well.
Or, on a busier street, when a driver speeding down the right lane where parked cars are clearly visible ahead tries to crowd back into traffic, you may be inclined to leave as little space as possible between you and the car in front of you. After all, you managed to recognize the parked cars ahead and adjusted accordingly, opting for what may be a longer line, but firm in your knowledge that you could not drive through solid matter.
But perhaps empathy got the best of you, and you slowed down to create enough space for the offending driver to slide seamlessly in front of you and into the flow of traffic. That most definitely deserves a wave.
Even in places like the north end of the Lions Gate Bridge, where the “zipper merge” is the norm, a wave is a way of thanking the driver behind you for adhering to the implied contract and yielding.
But here’s the thing: Almost without fail, courtesy on the road is met with rapt indifference, and worse, with a degree of entitlement usually reserved for drivers of emergency vehicles or city buses.
I am told that Vancouver is worse than most cities for this. Why? I don’t know.
But try this test: In the situations described above, or any other scenario where there is an opportunity to extend a courtesy to another driver, do it.
Make way, move aside, yield to the oncoming car – be the good guy.
Then record how often the driver to whom you have extended the courtesy waves or in any other way acknowledges your heroic sacrifice. And pay attention, because sometimes the wave may be subtle. It may be nothing more than an extended index finger jutting up from the top of the steering wheel. That counts. It may come earlier or later than you expect. Look for any visible sign that the driver appreciated your courtesy.
This is an unfair challenge because I already know the result. It almost never happens.
In fact, the driver you let in a second ago not only didn’t wave, he just changed back into the curb lane and is now speeding ahead of you expecting another sucker to let him in. And he won’t wave to them either.
This is not how civilized people behave.
Every time it happens, I vow that I will never again extend any form of courtesy because it will only offer the sociopaths with whom I share the road positive reinforcement.
But alas, I relent.
Maybe that guy doesn’t know the route.
Maybe this one is late for the daycare pick-up.
No, it’s okay. Go ahead.
Oh look. No wave. What a surprise.
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.