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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Mixed signals

Faithful column followers know that I am not a fan of drivers’ informal signals which are intended to direct traffic according to their wishes and whims.

I’m not referring to arm signals designating turns and stopping — those are definitive and legal.  Nor do I mean the single-finger salutes — at least those are understandable.  What I dislike are the casual hand waves, pointing, or other gestures aimed at allowing others the right of way, obtaining it oneself, or in some way attempting to control traffic from the driver’s seat.

The danger of this practice, cloaked in a shroud of courtesy, is that the directions often contradict established rules of the road, compromising safety.

For example, at uncontrolled intersections (no lights or stop signs), “courteous” drivers regularly wave other drivers to depart from the stopped position first via some sort of self-designed hand gesture.  That becomes confusing when it’s directed to a driver to their left, who should be yielding right of way to them.

Many times, due to reflections, window shading or indecipherable gestures, the driver to the left may not even see the signal, which leaves him or her wondering why the driver with the legal right of way is just sitting there.  Even if the driver to the left sees and understands the gesture, he or she may be reluctant to obey, since they do not have legal right of way.

That might induce the driver on the left to initiate their own hand wave for the original waver to proceed.  Such situations can degrade to lengthy “you go,” “no, you go” standoffs.  Or, depending on who can or cannot plainly see the signals, a series of stuttering false starts and stops may ensue.

In a worse case, if the two vehicles collide, the driver on the left, who did not yield the right of way to the vehicle on their right, would be at fault regardless of the alleged,  informal, unauthorized permission to go first.

Reader C.C. relayed an example of informal driver communication subject to mixed interpretation.  She wrote, “Suppose I’m on Highway 53 (a 2-lane highway), travelling at 55 mph and see another driver some distance down the road, waiting to enter.  I often turn my brights on (solid) so that the other driver notices the change and is sure to see ‘I’m here.’  I don’t want the other driver pulling out ahead of me.  On other occasions when I am travelling at slower speeds, I will sometimes ‘double click’ my lights to signal another driver to let them know I see them and it is OK for them to pull out.  To me that double click says ‘I see you, go ahead.’  I’ve seen many drivers do this and it seems to be generally understood.”

I know that C.C. is a driver who strives for excellence, but to me, there is ambiguity in her headlight “signals.”  Assuming that other drivers understand informal signals is a leap of faith at best.  Different drivers may, in fact, interpret a headlight flash or a switch to high beam as having the exact opposite of the intended message.

Truckers have always used a headlight flash as an “all clear” to vehicles just having passed them that it is okay to pull back in.  It is impossible in many cases, though, to know whether a high beam or headlight flash is an “all clear” or a warning.

Established, official signals such as blinkers, arms and brake lights work well; self-invented ones may or may not.  It’s difficult for me to trust unofficial signals from other drivers.  I saw one case where a driver stopped his vehicle in the street before turning into a parking lot and waved the driver of a vehicle exiting the lot to proceed.  The exiting vehicle proceeded directly into the far of the two in front of him, where it struck a vehicle that was going around the “go-motioner.”

Your own judgment and the rules of the road are the best determiners of when it is time to go, not go, or yield the right of way.  Trusting the judgment of strangers giving mixed signals may get you in trouble.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at