Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Not Making Waves

I've noticed a strange thing evolving on the roads in recent years in Britain.  I don't know how this works in other countries, but here we have a peculiar document called The Highway Code, which lies somewhere between an Act of Parliament and a pizza-restaurant flier in its legal status.  Disappointingly, despite the promising title, it has no cryptographic dimension but is a set of guidelines which set out the parameters of acceptable behaviour on the road.

It's a curious mix of legality, advice, and folklore.  A lot of it is clearly simply there for amusement, for example Rule 66 for cyclists:
You should
  • keep both hands on the handlebars except when signalling or changing gear
  • keep both feet on the pedals
  •  never ride more than two abreast, and ride in single file on narrow or busy roads and when riding round bends
  • not ride close behind another vehicle
  •  not carry anything which will affect your balance or may get tangled up with your wheels or chain
  • be considerate of other road users, particularly blind and partially sighted pedestrians. Let them know you are there when necessary, for example, by ringing your bell if you have one. It is recommended that a bell be fitted.
Excellent!  I can't remember the last time I saw a bike with a bell, at least ridden by anyone over 10 years old.  Nor anyone pedalling a bike with one foot.  And you really should not try to remain stationary at a junction with both feet on the pedals.  No, really, don't -- though you do often see cyclists attempting this balancing act (their feet appear to be taped to the pedals, presumably because they're deeply committed to obeying Rule 66).

But in most matters the Highway Code is quite clear, for example about who has the right of way in all situations (especially if you are a taxi driver, in which case the invariable and easy-to-remember rule is "I do").  For example, Rule 172:
The approach to a junction may have a 'Give Way' sign or a triangle marked on the road. You MUST give way to traffic on the main road when emerging from a junction with broken white lines across the road.
This makes perfect sense, unless you are in France, where the insane priorité à droite mentality still lingers.  Yet -- and this is the thing I've noticed -- in recent years it seems to have become an expectation bordering on "custom and practice" that, whenever possible, the driver with the right of way will yield it.

Sliproad from Hockley Viaduct to the M3 ...  Uh oh ...

In the right place, at the right time, this is a decent thing, an act of driverly goodwill.  Here, let me let you out of that side-street into the main traffic flow, or, Be my guest, I will pull to one side and give you a free run through this street narrowed to single-vehicle width by parked cars.  The counter-expectation is that the driver to whom priority has been yielded will graciously acknowledge the fact with an upheld open palm salute.  All very pleasant. But it has got out of hand, when people expect this to happen as a matter of obligation.  Increasingly, it seems, not to give up your right of way is regarded as the act of a selfish bastard. But it is quite definitely not written in The Highway Code that "it is simply greedy and inconsiderate to assert your right of way just because you can". I know, I've checked.

As a behaviour, this is actually quite dangerous in the wrong hands.  I have seen drivers travelling at or over the speed limit screech to a halt on a main road -- practically causing a multi-vehicle pile-up -- simply in order to let someone out of a side-street.  It can look irrational, superstitious even, in an OCD-ish kind of way:  Very often the very last vehicle in a queue of traffic -- behind whom there is no-one -- will halt needlessly and beckon a baffled driver out of a side-street.  There is clearly something quasi-religious going on here, a collecting of traffic karma points, which can lead to the Mexican stand-off where both drivers are determined to give way to the other -- No, after you! I MUST give way! -- blissfully unaware of the fuming queues building behind both of them.

The questionable psychology of all this is exposed when the driver conceding passage to the other fails to receive their wave of thanks.  I have been experimenting recently with not offering any acknowledgment at all,  just to see what happens. Quite often, instant anger is what happens.  People literally shout at you in sarcastic outrage.  Why, thank YOU, you ....!  This would suggest there's more at stake here than simple let's-all-get-along niceness.

It's rather like those weird Miss Manners clashes that happen on BBC Radio 4 Today, when the interviewer omits a formal greeting and gets straight to the question.

"So, Lord Lying-Scumbag, why are you telling us patent untruths again?"
"Good morning, John..."
"Um, yes, good morning..."
"And how is Mrs. Humphrys?"

It often seems that manners are not so much a social lubricant as a passive-aggressive way of policing the conformity of others.  "We're all nice and normal here!  Aren't we?"

I'm afraid this is something I react badly to.  I think I've mentioned before that sign above the carriage doors in the London Underground which used to say, "OBSTRUCTING THE DOORS CAN CAUSE DELAY AND BE DANGEROUS".  Around 1979, some punkish contrarian had taken white masking tape and changed the sign to read: "OBSTRUCT THE DOORS -- CAUSE DELAY -- BE DANGEROUS".  I rather liked that at the time, though I concede subsequent events have made it seem rather adolescent; innocent, even.  Well, you had to be there -- autres temps, autres mœurs!


Zouk Delors said...

I agree entirely. Whilst not illegal, this sort of thing is totally ... well ... Inappropriate. We need to draw a line (then pull up a.few feet behind it, look both ways till nothing stirs within either horizon before pullingl out).

Or you could just have Men's Roads and (equal but different) Women's Roads.

Incidentally, I think the Highway Code does have some sort of standing in law.

Mike C. said...


Not sure why the gender element has crept in there, but never mind.

According to

""Many of the rules in The Highway Code are legal requirements, and if you disobey these rules you are committing a criminal offence. Such rules are identified by the use of the words MUST/MUST NOT."

As I say, somewhere between an Act of Parliament and a pizza flyer...


Zouk Delors said...

Good to know that doesn't apply to Rule 66, then. I haven't got a bell: I either say "excuse me" or yell "BIKE!", according to circumstances.

Mike C. said...

Oh, don't get me started on cyclists who don't think ANY of the Highway Code applies to them...

It's difficult enough, getting motorists to share the roads with bikes, without a subset of cyclists alienating even sympathetic driver/cyclists like me -- there's a "parcour" mentality which regards pavements, roads, pedestrians and traffic as merely interesting challenges to their fluid, speedy passage across the landscape.