Saturday, February 14, 2015

When NOT to be polite: A traffic warning

Yesterday I witnessed a traffic accident. I saw it coming, but could do nothing to warn the drivers involved. Strangely, it was caused by a misplaced act of politeness. It's a situation I've seen many times, and it's always clear that those involved haven't really thought through how their politeness is creating a serious danger. So now that I've seen my fears realized, I think it's time that I put this out into the world, because I've never seen it discussed anywhere before.

Here's the set-up. It's rush hour on a four-lane city street. (This was Asheville's Charlotte Street just north of the I-240 overpass, though it could have been just about anywhere.) There's a long line of southbound cars at a red light. There's a northbound car wanting to make a left turn across the southbound lanes onto a small side street. Let's call her Driver A. She's a middle-aged woman in a Toyota Prius in this specific instance, though that's all irrelevant.

Driver B is in a small truck, in the left-hand southbound lane. He or she (I couldn't see the driver) sees that Driver A is going to have to wait forever to get an opening to turn left. So when it's his turn to start moving forward under the green light, he instead waits, and waves to Driver A to go.

Unfortunately, Driver A does not have a clear view of the southbound RIGHT-hand lane. There's not a car immediately adjacent to Driver B, or even a little way back, so Driver A goes. But what she doesn't see is the car that's coming.

I was four or five cars behind Driver B, so I saw Driver A starting to make her turn at the same time as I saw another car--Driver C--zipping along in the relatively clear right-hand lane next to me. I could see both of them, but neither of them could see the other. So they collided--right front corner of A to left front corner of C. (Because this is Asheville, Driver C was also a woman in a Toyota Prius. Yes, really.)

Neither driver was apparently injured, but A's car had a wheel bent badly enough that it couldn't even be driven far enough to clear the road. I saw her turning the steering wheel, trying to move her car, and the right front wheel was not turning with it. Broken axle or tie rod, maybe?

Driver A will clearly get ticketed for making a left turn when it wasn't clear to do so. And well she should. She was indisputably at fault. But if there were such a thing as an "assist" in the sphere of moving violations, we'd have to award it to Driver B. It was her yielding her right of way to Driver A that caused the problem. It lured her into an unsafe situation.

If you stop to think about it, you can imagine other ways that this scenario can go wrong besides the most obvious one that was played out yesterday:

  • Driver A recognizes the danger and hesitates making the turn. Finally she works up her nerve, but at just the same moment, Driver B has given up, having decided that A isn't ever going to go, and she can't keep on holding up the line forever, because cars behind her are starting to honk their horns. So A and B collide. 
  • Driver A goes halfway, turning in front of B but waiting to go the rest of the way until she gets a better view of the right-hand lane. But just when she concludes that it's clear, the car immediately behind A gets tired of waiting, and whips into the right lane to go around. Crash.
I've been Driver A countless times, faced with a polite but not clear-thinking Driver B, who can't understand why I'm not taking advantage of his or her generosity. Well, it's because I can't be sure that the OTHER lane is safe to cross. There's no way to communicate this by hand gestures, so I've seen many of them finally get an annoyed look on their face and accelerate rapidly past me. 

There's a Pedestrian Corollary to this scenario that frightens me even more. I'm pretty diligent about stopping for pedestrians trying to cross the street, but most drivers around me are not. Several times I've had a car behind me see me stop, and just move into the other lane to go around me without even slowing down. If I'm in the left lane and the pedestrian is coming from the left, or if I'm in the right lane with the pedestrian coming from the right, this is fraught with the danger of the pedestrian crossing safely in front of my stopped car, only to get plastered by the jerk zooming around me. And, again, there's not a damn thing I can do about it, except maybe hit the horn. Fortunately, so far all of the pedestrians involved have been sufficiently wary to wait until it's clear. 

The scenarios are less problematic when Driver B is in the right lane, because Driver A can easily see the left lane for herself. But they're still not problem-free, because of an impatient driver zipping around B at just the wrong time and smashing into A just as she starts the turn. 

Note that these scenarios are NOT problematic when there's only one lane. In that case, when you stop to let somebody turn in front of you, there's no danger of unseen traffic in an adjacent lane. 

Asheville drivers are, on average, more polite to each other than those of any other city I've lived in. (I wish they were just as polite to pedestrians, but that's still kind of foreign to the driving culture here.) However, there are situations where being polite creates a needless hazard that may not be perceived until it's too late. 

Politeness between drivers must be tempered by keen situational awareness, and a healthy respect for the worst-case scenario. Sometimes it's best not to yield your right of way, and just go when it's your turn. 


ADDENDUM: I found the accident report online, in case you want to look at it. I was curious to see if Driver A had, in fact, been cited, but the "citations" section is blank. Awaiting further investigation, perhaps?


7 comments:

Memphis MOJO said...

They are fortunate that no one (presumably) was injured.

Greg Schuster said...

Seen this happen many times myself, although I have never seen it end in an accident.

Andy said...

I have been all 3 drivers in this scenario as well. I, too, get bad looks when I refuse to pull into an unknown lane of traffic. However, I have successfully used hand signals as Driver B to indicate to Driver A whether or not it's clear- a closed fist or flat, close-fingered palm facing Driver A, sometimes with an additional display of a number of fingers indicating how many cars in the other lane before it clears. If you have a smart person on the other end it can be safely executed.

angerisagift said...

i thought only Boulder and Ft Collins had the highest Prius per capita??

Rakewell said...

After you've lived in Asheville a few years, you're legally required to own a Prius. A Subaru is an acceptable substitute if you're a lesbian.

Gary said...

I've been Driver C in this scenario on a mildly rainy night. We were in a restaurant lobby and while the police officer was taking the other driver's report, I looked out the window and saw another car turning left and another car leaving space... BAM! "Officer -- that's what happened." (Neither crash was serious.)

Rakewell said...

That story is so much better than mine that now I feel pathetic.