Steve Wallace: Misplaced courtesy can cause accidents

Every so often another driver, pedestrian or cyclist will mistakenly yield their right of way, causing confusion, consternation and angst for everyone.

Traffic rules and regulations are not always obeyed, but for the most part they provide predictability and relative order.

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Here are some confusing traffic situations brought forward by John C. (a dedicated reader of this column).

• Sometimes a driver wishing to turn left at an intersection, with no dedicated turning lane or advanced-left green arrow, will be motioned forward by a driver opposite intending to go straight through immediately upon the traffic light changing from red to green. This is truly misplaced courtesy. The driver who does this is often oblivious to the fact that other traffic is about to proceed through the intersection in an adjacent lane. There is also seldom consideration for pedestrian traffic. It is best to allow the proper sequence of events to take place. Traffic proceeding straight ahead should go first and the left turner should wait. A kind but firm hand gesture, headlight flash or tap of the horn will often solve the problem.

• Drivers will often stop to let pedestrians cross in mid-block, where no crosswalk exists. This action alone has the potential to cause a rear-end collision. It puts the pedestrian at risk from drivers behind who will not see the pedestrian and pass on the right or left of the stopped vehicle, which is displaying a serious bout of misplaced courtesy. There is often traffic approaching from another direction that may be surprised by an unscheduled stop and not see the pedestrian.

• Cyclists should be treated as vehicular traffic. There are many times when car drivers will unnecessarily stop the natural flow of traffic in order to allow a cyclist to cross from a stop sign, when there should be no such misplaced courtesy. If a cyclist dismounts and wishes to cross an intersection, it is proper to yield the right of way to such a newly minted pedestrian, but not unless both of the cyclist’s feet are on the ground beside the bike.

• There is an abundance of misplaced courtesy at four-way stops. For some unknown reason, there are many drivers and pedestrians who think direction of travel has something to do with sequential right-of-way. The first come, first serve rule simply applies. Pedestrians trump all other travel. When a pedestrian interrupts the normal vehicular travel sequence by waving on an obvious queue jumper, it confounds all the other drivers at the intersection. Drivers make the best pedestrians. They have an understanding and appreciation of the driver’s responsibility and vehicle performance. Pedestrians who do not drive are sometimes seen motioning a driver to advance into the path of another vehicle which actually has the right of way.

Misplaced courtesy will often cause a driver to be liable in a crash. Fault will be determined by the traffic code, not the well-intended but ill-advised actions of an overly polite inept person.

The person to whom the courtesy is being extended may feel obliged to accept the invitation to potential disaster. There is a chance that a hand gesture may be misinterpreted. The overly courteous driver is seldom, if ever, in control of surrounding traffic.

The best advice for everyone is to do the predictable. This does not exclude the normal courtesy of letting one into the lane of travel from a side street when vehicle flow is at a standstill, or alternating at an unexpected merge area. But it does require everyone to be more aware of the regulatory regime that governs us all when we travel.


Steve Wallace is the owner of Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island and in the Central Interior of B.C. He is a former vice-president of the Driving Schools Association of the Americas, a registered B.C. teacher and a graduate of the University of Manitoba.

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