We Teach Driving Like Your Life Depends On It

Social pressure can trump traffic laws

By Steve Wallace, Times Colonist April 13, 2012

The proper way to merge when lanes narrow because of construction is alternate meshing of vehicles at the point of elimination of one of the lanes. Photograph by: Darren Stone, Times Colonist, Times Colonist

The proper way to merge when lanes narrow because of construction is alternate meshing of vehicles at the point of elimination of one of the lanes.

Laws govern the way we drive – or do they?

Take, for example, a situation that all drivers have encountered. The road ahead goes from two lanes to one lane because of a “construction ahead” sign. Traffic stacks up in one long lane far ahead of the final opportunity to merge into one lane. Social pressure makes most drivers merge far too early in this situation. Consequently, there is one ridiculously long line of traffic causing gridlock for many city blocks.

This is what should happen. A double-line queue formation with much less gridlock is preferable. The alternate meshing of vehicles at the point of elimination of one of the lanes is how things should unfold. But that seldom happens. Most drivers who should merge at the point of the elimination of one of the lanes feel guilty in doing so. Those who have already merged, all be it much too early, feel slighted by late mergers. The late mergers are doing the manoeuvre in a proper fashion. Social pressure makes the very drivers who really know the law and the most efficient way to merge seem like unwelcome interlopers of the traffic system. It is a sad commentary on the misunderstood proper way to drive. (A well-placed traffic cop would solve the misunderstanding in no time.)

When two lanes of a highway are going the same direction, the left lane is generally thought to be the faster lane. It is also used for passing. There are two very odd misconceptions that are held by most drivers. The first is the belief that traffic in the left lane has the right of way and must move to the right to allow the faster vehicle behind a clear path to overtake. There is no such rule, unless a sign indicates that slower traffic must move right, or traffic must keep right except to pass. The law will allow drivers to pass using the right lane where the above regulatory signs are not in evidence. Drivers who do this are often looked upon with disdain. In fact, they are acting in a legal fashion. It is social pressure, not a law, that prevents most drivers from passing in the right-hand lane.

Social pressure also determines the order and flow of vehicles at uncontrolled-intersection cross streets. The average driver knows that the first car to arrive at an uncontrolled intersection has the right to proceed ahead of the late arriving traffic. When vehicles arrive at the same time, the one on the right has the right of way.

But that is not what happens at most major-minor street intersections. Despite the law, the major road traffic continues to romp through the intersection, seemingly oblivious to the traffic on the minor road. Strength in numbers and direction influence the flow of traffic. Social pressure causes the drivers on the minor road to actually relinquish their right of way.

The same thing happens when the flashing red and amber traffic lights are used at high-traffic-volume intersections. When traffic signals fail, the flashing red cycle is employed on the minor intersecting road and the flashing amber signal on the major road. The flashing red light means the same as a stop sign. The flashing amber means proceed with caution. In most every circumstance, all drivers who approach this configuration treat it as a four-way stop. Why? Who knows? The only explanation is the lack of understanding of the most simple traffic signalization or, once again, social pressure. The driver who actually understands the meaning of an amber flashing light is very likely to be in a serious crash.

Social pressure often trumps traffic law. Be aware of it and act accordingly.

Steve Wallace is the owner of Joan Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island and in the Central Interior of B.C. and a certified British Columbia teacher.


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