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.
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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.