Remember the great “Road Rage” epidemic of the late- nineties? Before the media and various bureaucratic institutions jumped on “distracted driving” as the automotive menace du jour that’s going to turn our highways and byways red with blood, there was a brief period of intense focus on road rage. All of the major news shows, like Dateline and 20/20, had pieces about traffic disputes escalating from displays of a middle finger into multiple homicide by Weedeater or whatever other gardening tool fell quickly to hand.
Certainly such incidents can and do happen, although we don’t seem to hear about them as much as we did a few short years ago. However, the other side of the road rage coin can be just as dangerous. I’m talking about violations of the rules of the road in the misguided attempt to be “nice” to your fellow motorists.
As I write this I realize that there are probably many in the TTAC audience who live in places where even the use of turn signals is considered a sign of weakness and the idea that any of the heathens that they share the roads with on their morning commute would ever create a safety hazard through a well- intentioned, but misguided attempt to cut a fellow driver a break is laughable. There are still a few places left where common courtesy is the norm. The downside is that random acts of kindness that also violate the rules of the road generate any number of potential consequences unforseen by the Good Samaritans among us.
Case in point: Thunderstorms rolled through Central KY early Wednesday morning, knocking out power and generally making the morning rush hour miserable. At one of the intersections on my way to “real” work, the traffic lights had gotten knocked out during the worst of the storm and had automatically reset to flash. The main road through the intersection runs east- west and is a divided four- lane highway with dedicated left and right turn lanes as you approach the intersection. It has a speed limit of 55 mph. The lights governing it were flashing amber.
The cross street is a two lane road with dedicated left- turn lanes running north- south, with the north route leading to the back entrance of an elementary school and a rural country road leading to a residential area to the south. The lights for that road defaulted to flashing red.
Page 13 of the official Kentucky Driver Manual reads:
A flashing yellow light means you must slow down and watch for others. It is found at intersections, construction areas, and on some vehicles, like tow trucks.
A flashing red light means you must come to a full stop and proceed only when the way is clear.
It seems easy enough to understand, especially when written out in English at a fourth grade reading level. If you have a flashing yellow light, proceed through the intersection. Slow down? Yes. Be careful? Of course. Come to a complete stop on a four- lane highway with a speed limit of 55 during rush hour in the rain in order to let cross traffic out in an effort to be “nice?” Absolutely not.
Of course, the latter was what was happening. Rather than following the rules of the road, a rather high percentage of Good Samaritans were coming to complete stops at the intersection. They were then happy to sit there, waving frantically at the first car in line on the cross street to proceed through the intersection.
The problem was that without the light to coordinate all four lanes of traffic stopping at the same time the cross traffic couldn’t safely proceed, especially if they planned to turn left. The driver in the right westbound lane would stop, while the leftlane traffic kept moving as they were supposed to do. If both westbound lanes stopped, the eastbound lanes would still be going. If all eastbound and westbound traffic somehow magically stopped, then inevitably someone in one of the left turn lanes on the four lane road would attempt to make their turn at the same time that one of the driver’s turning left from the two lane road tried to make their turn.
Meanwhile, traffic on the four lane roadway was still approaching the intersection at 55 (or higher) mph in both directions. In the heavy rain. There weren’t any accidents behind me before I was able to get through, but I did hear a couple of panic stops. Traffic was snarled in all directions, which is a ridiculous thing to ever see in my quiet suburban community.
If everyone had simply followed the rules of the road, the traffic east and westbound would have kept moving and eventually thinned out enough that the north and southbound traffic could have safely proceeded as well. Yes, they would have had to wait longer than they would have on a day when the traffic light was functioning properly. In the end everything would have been more efficient and ultimately safer for everyone passing through that intersection.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t let a fellow motorist merge or that just because you have the right of way you should be a jerk about asserting it. What I am saying is that more often than not the best way to be “nice” to your fellow motorists is to follow the rules, particularly when an unexpected situation, like a non- functioning traffic light, or inclement weather arises. Trying to give someone a break in violation of the rules of the road in those situations can create a much greater hazard.