Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Conroy’s Rules of Driving

Rule 15 - Put the cell phone down.
Back in the summer I wrote a post imploring1 my readers to use their car’s turn signals. Too many drivers, it seems, fail to do this simple yet important act. I meant that post as a (hopefully entertaining) lecture on good driving behavior. An ulterior motive was to express a frustration that I know many of us feel when driving, with an idea (read: hope) that venting in a public forum would somehow be cathartic and lessen my private frustration. No such luck. In fact, if anything, I’ve grown more vigilant of poor driving habits and consequently even more frustrated in the months since, and in that vein I’ve decided to list my rules of driving, highlighting all the many ways that we as a driving public have made driving less safe, more stressful, and indeed more antisocial than it needs to be.

Let’s start with a simple premise: driving is a social activity and as such it demands you, the driver, to be socially responsible. You, the driver, for the majority of your trips, might be alone.  Most of the time your driving will be for a purpose, heading to or from a specific place for a specific reason. You drive from your house to your work; you drive to the store to get groceries for tonight’s dinner; you drive to your friends’ house on Sunday to watch a football game, or to take your kids to sports practice, or to pick someone up from a school event. In other words, most of the time, for all the myriad reasons you go from one place to another, your trips are very personal and individual. This is true, certainly, but seeing driving in this light can lead to a perspective where you view your trips (and the goals that those trips serve) as of paramount importance, and that everyone else on the road is an obstacle in your way, delaying your trip, making your life harder. Such thinking is abetted by the fact that so many of us drive in a “car cocoon” as I like to term it, windows up, radio on, cut off from all the other drivers in their car cocoons. The other drivers become mere abstractions, unknown and barely glimpsed.

It’s this kind of perspective, I believe, that leads to so many of the bad driving behaviors that, well, drive all of us up a wall. How many times have you heard someone say that drivers from fill-in-the-blank2 are terrible? This lament is universal (at least in the U.S.) because we all see so much bad driving every day. When we envision ourselves, individually, in our car as the central and most important person on the road, it leads to a disregard of other drivers, to laziness in our driving, and to rationalizing away our bad behaviors. It’s why so often the rules of the road seem to have been never learned, forgotten, or ignored. You must fight this thinking. You must be responsible to other drivers on the road. Understand that we all share the road; that we all agree to follow rules that make everyone’s trip as orderly and safe as possible; that driving is a privilege earned – you must earn your driver’s license – and that privilege comes with a responsibility to yourself, to the passengers in your car, and to everyone else on the road. We all benefit from driving responsibly. This is the same type of responsibility that leads you to throw your trash into cans instead of hurling it into the gutter, or pay for the things you want instead of stealing them, or to respect the personal freedoms of others. It’s the type of responsibility that makes modern society work.

So keeping this perspective in mind, onto the rules.

[As I get to this list of Conroy’s Rules of Driving, know that while I’m declaring myself a crusader for good driving, I know that the history of crusaders is full of hot air and hypocrisy. So be it, I might not be a saint of the road, but I’ll still champion the cause.]

Conroy’s Rules of Driving

1. Be aware. This may seem obvious, but checking your mirrors, being alert to what’s happening behind you and in the road some distance ahead, looking around as you approach an intersection, just being aware of the general road situation around you. All of this is supposed to be second nature for experienced drivers, but I get the sense it isn’t based on the many rules below that aren’t being followed. One of the primary reasons is that far too many people drive distracted and as a result do not give their primary attention where it belongs, to driving. Too many drivers are on autopilot.

2. Use your turn signal. I already went into this in great detail in my earlier post, but the general idea is to use your turn signal any time you change lanes or make a turn so that the other drivers around you know what you’re intending to do.

3. Be considerate about merging. We’ve all been there, you need to merge out of your lane and into the next lane for any of a number of valid reasons. Yet the stubborn driver in the next lane won’t let you in. As if he/she owns that plot of road or driving is some sort of competitive activity and letting you in front is ceding an advantage (like you’re getting the better of them). And I suspect that many (or most) of us on occasion have been pretty inconsiderate in not letting a driver merge in front of us. Get over it, we’re living in a society, let the driver merge. Letting a car in front of you makes no difference in your trip, but it does make overall traffic flow better.

On the flip side, it’s also a merger’s responsibility to maneuver in a timely fashion. There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a driver continue in a lane that is closed a short distance ahead with the expectation that they can merge out of the lane at the last possible moment. Waiting till the last opportunity to merge just causes worse congestion at the merge point and slows everyone down overall. Do everyone a favor and merge (using your turn signal) earlier than at the last possible moment.

And a final piece of advice, please give a thank you wave to anyone who lets you merge in front of them. It's an easy, common courtesy, and it humanizes the whole driving experience; it gets you out of your car cocoon for just a moment.

4. Obey traffic signs. My day job as a transportation engineer has taught me that there is an awful lot of thought that goes into every traffic sign put on the road. All of this effort is needed to ensure a simple outcome: provide clear and consistent direction to drivers to improve overall traffic operations. If you ignore or flout these signs, you’re making traffic worse for everyone else. A good example is disobeying the NO LEFT TURN sign. Often these signs apply during specific time periods, say, rush hours, to eliminate left turns at intersections in conditions where traffic is heavy and left turns are difficult and/or dangerous. If you decide you’re going to make a left turn at an intersection where a NO LEFT TURN sign is in place, you’ll just end up backing up traffic behind you as you likely wait for an extended period for a gap in opposing traffic that allows a turn (often when the light turns red and opposing traffic stops). This is a cardinal example of bad behavior. You’ve decided that your trip is so much more important that everyone else’s that you can ignore a rule that right’s there in front of you in black and white3 – and actively delay a lot of other drivers in the process.

5. Use your lights. If it’s getting dark (or not yet light), or raining, or foggy, or any other situation where conditions are a bit adverse, turn on your lights. The purpose here is as much to let other drivers know you’re there as it is to allow you to see well. In any case, it makes the road safer for you and everyone else.

6. Always stop at STOP signs. If you get into the habit of rolling through STOP signs when you can see that there aren’t any cars coming in the other legs of the intersection, you’re asking for trouble. Sooner or later you’re bound to make a mistake and fail to see another car approaching the intersection (or already stopped), and as you roll through the STOP sign you’ll either hit them or they’ll hit you. Even more risky is your hitting a pedestrian, say, a child on a bike, because pedestrians are always harder to spot than other cars and they expect (especially children) you to stop. How bad would you feel if you hit a pedestrian just because it was too much trouble to come to a complete stop for one second? Get in the habit of always stopping so it will become second nature.

If you want additional incentive, just assume that there’s a traffic cop lurking hidden near the intersection just waiting for you to roll through the sign so he can give you a ticket and ruin your day. So stop at every STOP sign to avoid getting an aggravating and expensive ticket.

7. Never run red lights. I can think of nothing more dangerous, and therefore selfish, than running a red light. This can lead to catastrophic accidents, especially if cross traffic is travelling at a high speed. Probably most of us never blatantly run a red light in the middle of a traffic signal, but many sneak through an intersection just after the signal turns red. This is still dangerous, especially for the drivers in the cross directions who may go on a green light only to be hit by a car violating the red light. Beyond that, sneaking through an intersection on red delays the cross movement(s) from going on green, delaying a lot of other drivers (even if it’s just for a second). In the scheme of any day, let alone a week or month or year, waiting a couple of minutes at a signal for the next green light is no big deal. A little bit of patience is a whole lot safer and more considerate.

8. Get in the correct lane. When approaching an intersection or interchange, be sure to maneuver into the proper lane. With rare exception, there are ample signing and pavement markings to direct you into the lane where you need to be, which should give you plenty of time and distance to get into that lane. This calls for a little situational awareness on your part, but the result is that you don’t end up in a lane where you don’t want to be. Think of an intersection where someone is in a through lane when they meant to be in a left turn lane and they hold the entire queue of vehicles up behind them as they wait to merge (and then turn) left. Or more dangerously, the driver who at high speed swerves suddenly out of an interchange exit lane so they can stay on the freeway. Or even worse the driver who backs-up on a freeway to exit when they miss the ramp.

This last point leads to a follow-up rule: if you do get in the wrong lane, continue on the road and turnaround at the next opportunity. Don’t delay everyone at an intersection or dangerously maneuver on a freeway to try and rectify you initial error with another even worse error.4

Cars blocking intersection (including a police car!)
9. Don’t block the intersection. During congested periods signalized roads are often backed up from one traffic signal to the next. Obviously any driver would prefer not to sit at an intersection and watch the light go red in front of them because there’s no room on the other side of the intersection for them to fit and not block the cross traffic. Many drivers simply don’t wait, they enter the intersection and when the light turns red they, still partially or fully in the intersection, impede cross traffic. Don’t be one of these drivers that make congested rush hours even worse. Don’t block an intersection, by the next signal cycle room will be available for you to cross the intersection (and wait at the next light). Again, a little bit of patience is a whole lot more considerate.

10. Slower drivers keep right. There are two types of drivers, there are fast drivers and there are slow drivers. It’s probably best for everyone if slow drivers and fast drivers agree not mix it up on the road. I’ve made no secret that I’m in the fast driver camp, but that’s not material here. What is material is that in America there is a tacit understanding5 that faster vehicles stay to the left and slower vehicles stay to the right (I assume it’s opposite in countries like the U.K. where they drive on the wrong side of the road). This is even assumed in how freeways are designed with entrances and exits (almost always) on the right where slower speeds prevail. Follow this understanding, if you want to drive slower keep to the right lane and if you choose to drive faster stay on the left. That way we can reduce the amount of maneuvering as, for example, fast vehicles pass slow vehicles that are inexplicably traveling in the left lanes.

11. Don’t tailgate. If you do happen to be a fast driver or if you’re just traveling in congested conditions, don’t be a boor and ride the bumper of the car in front of you. This is not only unnerving to the leading driver but it’s a recipe for an accident, which by the way, will always be the tailgating driver’s fault.6 It’s better to (1) follow at a safe distance and (2) wait until there is a safe opportunity to pass the leading vehicle. Your “delay” in following a slower vehicle will be slight, so please be civilized.

12. Be judicious in your use of horns and flashing lights. And when it comes to churlish behavior little can compare to a profligate use of your car horn and flashing headlights. The horn is meant as warning to other vehicles, ditto for flashing your headlights. They are not meant to express your displeasure at the actions of another driver. I’m guilty of using my horn to express displeasure (especially when people don’t use their turn signals!), but I’m wrong (remember I’m not a driving saint, just a crusader). When I use my horn on bad drivers it’s my attempt to shame them, but I doubt it has this effect. Instead it just adds to what many already consider a stressful and unpleasant experience. Driving shouldn’t be an antagonistic exercise, so taking the high road and using a bit of discretion when witness to other’s bad driving is probably the best course.

13. Make way when turning. If you’re going to make a turn from a road to a side street or driveway, first put on your turn signal, then get over to the right side of the road (if turning right) or towards the left of the lane (if turning left) to allow others room to pass. This is a simple and considerate maneuver, yet so many people seem content to turn from the middle of the road, blocking anyone behind from passing. This is particularly head-scratching when people turn from a through lane where a turn lane is provided! (It’s a turn lane meant for you to use when turning, please use it!)

Make way for these vehicles - they're in a bigger hurry than you
14. Get out of the way of emergency vehicles. There is no better example of selfish, self-centered driving than failing to yield to emergency vehicles. I can assure you that the ambulance or police car or fire engine with flashing lights and wailing siren is at that moment heading somewhere with more urgency than you. If you hear sirens in the distance, perk up, find out where they’re coming from and make sure you get out of the way should their route pass or intersect with yours. This seems obvious, but we’ve all seen when the fire truck has to stop at an intersection to avoid hitting the car(s) traveling in the cross direction that never bothered to stop.

15. Put the cell phone down. Finally, and circling back to rule 1, put your cell phone away. Distracted driving leads to so many other bad driving behaviors. Your hands should be free to handle the wheel (and turn signals). Some people (read: many people) even text when driving, diverting their eyes to their phone and hands from the wheel, the two actions a driver should never do. Use blu-tooth, speaker phone, pull over to the side of the road, or just don’t use your phone at all while driving.

If we followed these rules, and let’s avoid arguing and admit that we all know that we should follow these rules, driving would be an altogether more pleasant and less dangerous activity.

This is my list, and I would encourage you to share any other rules that you think aren’t being commonly followed. I’ll add them to the new page listing Conroy’s Rules of Driving that I’ve posted on this blog (see here).



1. Some might say lecturing or even haranguing.

2. Fill in the blank with whatever geographic local you want. I hear this line all the time from people who have relocated to Baltimore (my hometown) from somewhere else in the country, but I’ve also heard it said when I’ve traveled somewhere else (not said by me, FYI).

3. This is literally true. In the United States, signs with black text on a white background, like speed limit signs or NO LEFT TURN signs, represent a traffic law and are statutorily enforceable. Compare this to a sign with black text on a yellow background, like a curve warning sign, which are meant to warn drivers of approaching road conditions but carry no statutory weight (i.e., you can’t be issued a citation for going faster than a curve speed advisory sign suggests).

4. Drivers backing-up on a freeway is a particularly baffling behavior to me. By this action, the driver is indicating that it is more important to exit at a ramp just passed (or stay on a freeway) than it is to put the driver and any passengers, not to mention other drivers and their passengers, in a very dangerous position. There is little more dangerous in driving than going the wrong way on a high speed road, especially when going the wrong way involves going in reverse which few are expert at doing. The next interchange is bound to be a short distance away. If you pass your exit just admit that you made a mistake, take a few minutes, and turnaround at the next interchange. Safer for you, safer for everyone else, and just a few minutes lost.

5. More than a mere understanding in many cases where statute dictates that slower moving large trucks use the right one or two lanes on three-plus lane freeways. And American teenagers are taught in driving school that slower traffic should keep to the right and passing should occur on the left.

6. And not just in a philosophical, karmic sense, but legally as rear-end collisions are always the fault of the trailing driver.


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