A sign from a superior road user that they are graciously granting you, the inferior, some favour

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: I love few things more than a good interaction with a driver when I’m cycling. By that I mean that it all works as it should: I make eye contact, communicate my intentions, smile, nod, and get an understanding smile and nod in return.

Memorable ones are not necessarily those that were remarkable: an older driver behind me when I was waiting to turn right at a T junction. Yes, I see you, I understand you’re waiting to turn, take your time, I respect you, I understood from his sign. A wonderfully friendly bus driver, responding to me showing I was not taking the first left off a roundabout. He nodded his understanding, gave a thumbs up, and patiently kept well behind me until I had taken my exit.

Extraordinarily, I felt safe with this huge bus in my wake. A white van driver likewise acknowledging and being patient in response to my clear signal which way I intended to turn. It’s lovely when it all works as it should.

Sometimes, though, a seemingly friendly interaction between myself and a driver leaves me uncomfortable. It involves what I have started thinking of as the Magnanimous Driver Wave (MDW). In this kind of interaction there is not an acknowledgement of your signal and movements as an equal road user.

Instead, the MDW is a sign from a superior that they are graciously granting you, the inferior, some favour. The spirit behind a good driver interaction is respect for you as an equal, coupled with awareness from the driver of their responsibility around you as a more vulnerable road user. The spirit behind the MDW is that the rightful user of the roads is allowing you an optional privilege.

[If you can’t visualise it, Her.ie has an image example of its use — under the “G’wan So” header of this article — when “Essentially, you’re telling pedestrians that they can traverse the road safely at your beckon.” — Ed]

The MDW actually occurs more often when I’m walking, and it is also as pedestrian that I most clearly see why it makes me feel so ill at ease. Drivers use it most often to indicate that I should cross the street. Now, that in and of itself may not look like a problem, but often, they want me to cross the street against a red pedestrian light, or they stop in a situation where I remain at risk, as fast-travelling traffic from the opposite direction may not do the same, or a less patient driver waiting behind the benefactor may overtake them and run me over.

What really gives away the true sentiment behind the MDW is what happens if you don’t do what they indicate you should. Drivers get angry. They may hoot at you. While you usually can’t hear anything they may be verbalising, their expressions and gestures make it clear that they’re very unhappy with you.

I believe that this shows a fundamental problem at the heart of many of the road crashes occurring on Irish roads: people rate their own judgement above the law when they are on the road.

Added to that, I believe Irish society generally believes roads are the property first and foremost of private car drivers, with any other road users tolerated intruders into their territory. Therefore the MDW indicates two things: first, the driver is operating from a belief that they are the boss, or more accurrately perhaps, they are the lord of the manor, traversing their property.

Second, they operate from a belief that their judgement is the litmus test for what should happen in a given situation.

So maybe you’re waiting at a pelican crossing. The driver, being the lord of the manor, decides to show their largesse by stopping to let you go. The driver, believing their judgement is the final word on what should happen here, expects you to ignore the pedestrian crossing light and cross the road.

Anger if you don’t do so stems from your refusal to acknowledge them as lord, and your refusal to acknowledge their authority to dictate what should happen in the situation. The same core beliefs lie at the decision to ignore speed limits, break red lights, park on footpaths or in cycle lanes, and many other infractions.

The law may say one thing, but the societal norm is that drivers’ judgement on what should happen overrides all else, because they are the rightful owners of the roads.

Stopping so that a pedestrian can cross may seem a nice thing to do, and driver consideration is critical to the safety of vulnerable road users. Some drivers do so as a genuine gesture to give preference to a more vulnerable road user. The core quality of this consideration is respect for the pedestrian or cyclist’s judgement: if I decline to do what you want me to do, you accept it and move on. Yet in many cases it’s nice the same way it was nice for the lord of the manor to toss coins to peasant children.

You’ll know this is the case if the driver reacts with anger or annoyance if the cyclist or pedestrian declines to do what the driver wanted them to do. This shows not a considerate offer and acceptance of the vulnerable road user’s judgement, but an act of control of the situation. A whole world of wrongness lies behind the gesture. It’s not really very nice at all.

Nadia Williams is a postgraduate researcher investigating the role of social dynamics in cycling uptake and safety. She lives car-free with her family in Dundalk.

10 Comments

  1. “I believe Irish society generally believes roads are the property first and foremost of private car drivers, with any other road users tolerated intruders into their territory”

    That’s definitely the case and for many years now I’ve been waging a guerrilla war of my own trying to subvert this belief that drivers have that they have the right-of-way.

    As you mention, this situation is much more stark when you’re walking. I used to wait patiently (out of fear, and lack of confidence) at the side of a road and wait till all cars had passed before walking across. Now, I don’t. If a car is at a distance where I can cross such that the car can continue unimpeded if they were going below the speed limit, then I will walk across. of course, they aren’t always going below the speed limit, and many of them (a surprisingly large minority) will actually speed up, which causes me to slow down my crossing just to let them know that they can fuck right off. I’m lucky in that I’m able-bodied and willing to face down these road-bullies, but not every one is, and thus the status quo remains.

    It causes me great sadness every time I witness a person in a car (or bicycle) bully a pedestrian because the person walking had the sheer temerity to use the public space known as the road, and not give way to their betters.

    BTW, just before anyone starts moaning at me about waiting for the lights to be green for me to cross – I’m talking about areas with no pedestrian crossings (the vast majority of roads). The roads are public spaces, and I’m fully allowed to use them.

  2. Hmm not sure about the pelican crossing example – it could be a bit more nuanced than that. A driver should treat crossings like any other junction – don’t enter the junction unless the exit is clear. That’s how I try to drive in heavy traffic. It may then happen that people waiting to cross will take advantage and cross the road in the gap. But that’s not my “largesse” that’s just me driving in a lawful manner.

    Q: Are they breaking the law by crossing against a red signal? A: probably yes
    Q: Is it dangerous? A: Probably not – although it might be seen as a poor example to children (*).

    But that might risk losing sight of the big picture. The big picture is that Irish roads engineers often use pelican or traffic light crossings in a crude attempt to manage people on foot for the benefit of people in cars. Red/green man crossings are used in many places where a flashing yellow/ black and white zebra crossing would work better for everybody. A driver who chooses to yield anyway, regardless of the signal colour, at a pelican crossing for someone on foot could also be seen as making an act of defiance against the hostility of Irish roads engineers towards those on foot.

    * We should also note that, from memory, one study has found that 70% of female casualties at pelican crossings were knocked down during the green man signal. So maybe we need to revisit our assumptions about what is safe and when?

  3. The nuances and additional influences on situations as simple as crossing a road are fair points (and I’d be the first to support the view that even the simplest actions can be laden with meaning for any of those involved as well as those observing), but to me it all comes back to this: the VRU (Vulnerable Road User) should always be the one to decide whether to proceed or not, and that decision must always be accepted and respected.

  4. It causes me great sadness every time I witness a person in a car (or bicycle) bully a pedestrian because the person walking had the sheer temerity to use the public space known as the road, and not give way to their betters.

    That again is a critical point: there’s a hierarchy of vulnerability, and the hierarchy of responsibility should be its inverse. So, the less vulnerable you are, the more responsible you are. I believe it should be enshrined in law.

  5. I’ve sometimes turned my back on the road or bend down and begun tying my shoelace to avoid the ‘beep’ or MDW. And I’ve then been beeped in annoyance for not having accepted the offer to cross. My eldest (10 years) frequently waves drivers on when he has not felt that it was appropriate to accept the offer.

  6. As it happens the Galway Cycling Campaign is circulating a briefing note on the MPDL proposals. This includes a discussion on legal protections for vulnerable road users, particularly children, and the lack of same in Ireland.

    http://www.galwaycycling.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Briefing_document_re_MPDL_proposals_final.pdf

  7. The courtesy wave is something all road users do, not just car drivers towards cyclists and pedestrians Drivers wave or blink their lights if they will allow another car to pass in front of them, for instance I think this whole article is making something out of nothing

  8. I also am not sure this is a common thing. I do agree that motorists seem to feel that they own the roads, notably by their actions and also all the complaining about how other people don’t pay ‘road tax’ (sic) and yet are still in the way. This attitude is far more likely to show up by close passes, failure to yield, speeding up to close a gap that a pedestrian or cyclist was going to move in to, dumping their vehicles half on the path and half on the road, etc than by what is being described here.

    I have been honked at because I am NOT going through a red light but always by cars behind me. I put this down to the disturbingly high percentage of drivers who don’t seem to know how filter lights work. The vast majority of the time I am honked at it is because I dare to be on the road at all, somehow enraging some asshole even though they can easily pass me. These people, for want of a better word, certainly believe they are the lords of the manor, but they are not in any way magnanimous. I’ll take a superior seeming wave of largesse over dangerous aggression any day.

    Most of them time when I receive this so called magnanimous drivers’ wave it is in a situation where there is a standoff. Having been told many, many times (usually by smug assholes who are defending bad driving) that being right is not much good when you have been crushed by a car I almost always yield to oncoming traffic in narrow gaps even if I have gotten there first (after all a lot of motorists don’t pay much attention…I mean, cyclists are nearly invisible). Having an oncoming car yield and wave me to come through the gap is appreciated by me.

  9. I based the article on personal experience and converstions with other people who walk a lot to get around. You’ll also see there’s a previous commenter who experiences this, and said their son does, too. It certainly does exist. Whether it’s common is a valid question, and one that would be interesting to study properly.

  10. Just be careful not to dismiss the experience of others simply because you personally haven’t experienced something. Courtesy signals are indeed common and a vital part of getting about on the roads. The difference lies in whether it’s a courtesy or a command, and I argue the test lies in the reaction of the driver if the VRU declines the invitation.

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