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The Fine Art of Waving

Well, I hope that 2019 has started well for you.  If you are reading this while still out on a road trip, good for you!

I also covered a few miles over the holiday season, driving to visit relatives as well as to get a bit of R & R.  While toddling around the place and occasionally zooming around the place, it came to my attention that when you’re driving in rural areas, it seems to be the done thing to wave to other drivers… but not if the traffic’s heavy.  There seems to be some sort of unwritten code about waving at other drivers.  Well, it’s about time that this code got written down!

The first rule seems to be that like waves to like.  You don’t see car drivers waving to truckers, truckers waving to motorcyclists or motorcyclists waving to car drivers.  However, truckers wave to truckers, car drivers to car drivers, and motorcyclists to other motorcyclists.  There are a few exceptions to this rule.  Small children riding as passengers are allowed to wave at anybody and should be waved back to because it’s a nice thing to do and provides a bit of a human connection during a long boring trip in the back of the car while visiting Grandma.  Truckers and motorcyclists are also allowed to wave back to children on the side of the road who wave to them.  The other exceptions to the “like waves to like” rule are (a) if someone has pulled over to let you pass or done something else nice and (b) if you recognize the other driver.  Actually, these last two exceptions always apply: one always acknowledges friends and extra courteous behaviour.

Waving is also only done to oncoming vehicles. You do not wave to vehicles that you’re overtaking or who are overtaking you.  You also do not wave to stationary vehicles or to vehicles in the lane beside you.  Only oncoming drivers count.

The next rule for waving as a car driver is that it only really takes place in rural areas and in places where the traffic isn’t heavy.  We don’t wave to each oncoming vehicle in the city – in the city, we tend to see other cars as impersonal things coming towards us as we travel along in our little metal bubbles.  In the country, however, another driver is another human in a large and mostly empty landscape.  If rural traffic is heavy for whatever reason – congested interstate highways and the roads leading to music festivals, for example – then waving is optional.

Thinking about this, it would be kind of fun to extend the “like waves to like” rule to city driving as well, just to add a bit more of a personal side to things. After all, driving is becoming more and more automated these days, and we spend so much time connecting with others via screens, so a bit more contact with real humans is always welcome.  However, you don’t want to spend half your driving time waving.  I therefore propose the following: in the city, you can wave to other cars with the same make, model and colour as yours.  Like calling “Snap!”  This kind of happens already in the case of classic cars and in the case of somewhat less common vehicles.  But let’s all give it a go!

In fact, Nissan had a campaign a few years back (in 2011, in fact) trying to come up with an official wave for drivers of the LEAF  hybrid to give other LEAF drivers.  A hunt through the Nissan Electric Facebook page  suggests that the results were inconclusive but at least they tried…  Maybe they tried too hard.

Let us now turn back to the typical wave from driver to driver on a rural road.  How does one do it?  Fully taking one hand off the wheel and sticking it out the window while waving frantically is only saved for when you see a friend driving the other way.  If you do it at a stranger, you’re a bit of a weirdo and you’ve transgressed the code of behaviour.

There seem to be different types of wave.  All of them are considered polite acknowledgements of fellow drivers and you are free to choose any style that suits you.  If you are particularly bored and want to keep the passengers amused, get them to keep a score and see which one is the most popular.

  • The nod: This is the most basic acknowledgement of the humanity of another driver. This is done by quickly bowing one’s head forward or in the direction of the other driver (i.e. on a slight diagonal).  Used by more introverted people, staunch silent types and those who like to have both hands on the wheel at all times.
  • The single finger: No, not THAT single finger salute! This is the polite version and is a bit more visible than the nod.  This involves straightening the index finger (pointer) of one hand or the other (usually the right hand – but I’m right-handed.  Do lefties raise the pointer of their left hands?).  All other fingers stay curled around the steering wheel.
  • The flap: This is an extension of the single finger wave. Instead of just one finger uncurling and leaving the wheel, all fingers plus the thumb open up while the heel of the hand rests on the steering wheel, giving the oncoming driver a brief flash of palm.
  • The full hand: The whole hand leaves the steering wheel and is raised no further than head height. The palm faces the oncoming driver.
  • The karate chop: Here, the hand leaves the wheel can be lifted as high as high as the head or even slightly above it, but only the side of the hand is presented to the oncoming driver rather than the palm.  It’s kind of like a sloppy military salute.

What about not waving?  Is this acceptable?  The code here states that if the other person doesn’t wave to you, you don’t have to wave back.  However, if someone waves to you, it’s polite to wave back.  If you fail to wave back, you will be judged, often according to what you drive.  If you are driving a new(ish) luxury model, you will be perceived as a stuck-up snob who sees themselves as better than anybody else on the road.  If you are in a muscle car, you’re considered a power-obsessed jerk who thinks they own the road.  If you’re in a battered old vehicle, you’re considered to be a bum and a lout with no manners.  If you own a small hatchback, you’re considered to be a selfish millennial/old fogy.  If you drive none of the above, you’re just considered to be rude.  Children (or possibly other passengers if you’re bored enough) are then permitted to poke out tongues or do other rude hand signs at the non-wavers, preferably once they’ve passed out of sight or just as you’re passing each other.

Have a great summer of driving and always be courteous. Including waving.

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