How To Be a Gentleman Behind the Wheel

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We’ve covered the art of being a gentleman at workon the fieldin the air, and at a party. But there’s one area of well-mannered comportment that often gets ignored: how to be a gentleman on the road.

Bad behavior behind the wheel has its roots in the same thing that plagues internet civility: anonymity. Once we slip into the driver’s seat and close the door, we feel sealed off from the rest of the world; we’re “king of the road,” and the sense of being in a protected pod sometimes gives us license to act in ways we would be ashamed of at more public, face-to-face gatherings.

We could all use some friendly reminders on auto etiquette from time to time. It’s a set of “manners” that truly meet at the intersection of safety and civility. Being a gentleman behind the wheel not only makes driving less dangerous for everyone, it also makes what can be a chore at least a little more pleasant.

Some of what we’ll talk about today is already enshrined in law, but often gets ignored. Other indiscretions may technically be lawful but make one’s fellow drivers nuts. There are hundreds of things one could touch on — what we present below are those points that seem to be most often forgotten when we’re zooming down the road.

On the Highway

Don’t drive slowly in the left – passing – lane. This is one of those indiscretions that not only is a scourge to everyone’s dad’s blood pressure, but is against the law in many states. The left lane is for passing – slower traffic keep right! Driving slowly in the left lane forces people to pass on the right, and it can also form an impenetrable “roadblock” for the person behind you if you’re going the same speed as the car in the other lane.

If you’re stuck behind a car in the left lane that won’t move over, it’s common to want to tailgate until they get the message. Try flashing your headlights instead. For whatever reason it feels a little more uncomfortable to do this rather than tailgating – it’s less passive-aggressive I guess – but it’s safer than riding their bumper. And if you’re the offender, lost in belting out “Total Eclipse of the Heart” while cruising at 60 mph in the left lane, get over as soon as you see someone coming up behind you, and mend your ways ever after (both in your driving and your music choices).

Maintain a consistent speed. One thing left-lane putterers will do to add insult to injury is to accelerate once someone behind them gives up and tries to pass on the right. Then a little while later they’ll slow down again. Many times it’s not even a conscious act; they just aren’t paying enough attention to their surroundings. I remember one road trip where we must have passed, and been passed, by the same car 50 times in 500 miles. Cruise control is your friend.

Do the zipper merge. This is admittedly something I’ve been doing wrong all my life and was completely unaware of before researching this article. When you’re cruising a two-lane highway and see a sign saying, “Lane closed ahead,” and instructing you to merge, what do you do? Probably start immediately getting over to the lane that will remain open. You’re a gentleman – you plan ahead! Then, when that lane starts backing up, you curse at the scalawag who speeds past in the open lane right up to the last possible merge point. “That scoundrel!” you mutter. “I hope no one lets him in. And that someday weasels rips his flesh!”

Ah, but here’s the twist. That scoundrel is actually doing it right! This is an instance where it’s possible to be too courteous.

The safest, most effective way to merge when a lane ends on the highway is the zipper merge. Everyone uses both lanes of traffic until they reach the cut-off point, when they each take turns merging. You can see how it’s done here. This reduces congestion and traffic back-up by as much as 40%. And as these kindly Minnesotans explain, one of the other benefits of the zipper merge is a marked reduction in road rage; next time you see someone driving up to the merge point, instead of becoming enraged, shake your cane and shout, “Huzzah! Carry on good sir!”

On the Streets

Don’t block parking lot entrances/exits. When you’re rolling to a stoplight, try not to come to a stop in front of parking lot exits and entrances. If a person is trying to turn out of one, they’ll be ever so grateful for the space you leave that allows them to make a move.

Let people into traffic when appropriate. In addition to letting people out of a parking lot when you’re coming to a stop, it can be gentlemanly to let someone in front of you when the light turns green and traffic starts rolling again. But just let one guy go; the people behind you deserve to get where they’re going too. And it’s not truly courteous to stop and let someone in when there isn’t congestion and you’re not slowing down for a traffic light; stopping suddenly in moving traffic can be dangerous for the person behind you who isn’t expecting it.

Don’t forget the thank you wave! If someone is kind enough to let you out of your neighborhood/parking lot, don’t forget the thank you wave! It’s an acknowledgement of their unnecessary, but very welcome courtesy. Not giving a wave says, “Of course you stopped – I’m entitled.” Call in the weasels this time!

Don’t text (or talk on the phone unless absolutely necessary). This gets enough attention these days that I don’t think I need to say too much. Don’t do it. It’s dumb. It kills people. Having spent half my life with a cell phone and half without, I can remember a time when you didn’t have to be in touch with people while you were driving. You still don’t.

Use the horn sparingly. The beep is the equivalent of some guy shouting “HEY!” in an all-pedestrian society. It’s your car’s yell. And like all yelling, it’s jarring, and unless it’s truly needed, can come off as rude. Of course, there are geographic variations in the accepted use of the beep. In New York City it’s just your car’s way of periodically clearing its throat; in Tulsa, I can probably count the number of times I’ve heard a beep in the last few years on one hand. But in general, use your horn sparingly. Employ a loud beep to alert someone else of danger. If the light’s turned green and the person ahead hasn’t moved, give them a 5-second cushion before issuing a short, light beep – one that says, “Go on old chap,” rather than, “Get moving you filthy animal!”

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