Reading the informal language of road signals.

How we get from here to there.
Feb. 9 2010 10:49 AM

The Bird, the Wave, and the Shaka

Reading the informal language of road signals.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

A funny thing happened on the way to the mall the other day. Coming down a two-lane rural highway, an approaching driver flashed his headlights at me. My first instinct was that my high beams were on—but it was a sunny day. A few seconds later, it dawned on me that the burst of illumination was meant as a warning: Just around the upcoming bend sat a local trooper on the grassy shoulder.

As it happened, I was more or less going the limit, so this was moot. But the experience stayed with me as the miles wore on. Firstly, I couldn't recall the last time I had seen such a warning, which I thought another victim of the Internet age, given over to things like Trapster.

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Secondly, I was curious as to why anyone would bother: It takes time and effort to warn strangers about a speed trap—all for the sake of helping someone whom you will not see again and who cannot return the favor. It's an interesting question for evolutionary biologists; a form, perhaps, of what Ernest Fehr and his colleagues have called "strong reciprocity" (PDF)—one of those curious "forms of human behavior involving interaction among unrelated individuals that cannot be explained in terms of self-interest." This makes sense when each person's sacrifice in time and effort goes toward the collective (and thus his own) good. But what about when the helping behavior comes at a potential cost to group fitness—by ensuring a higher supply of speeding drivers on local roads? (One also wonders about those people who are tweeting DUI checkpoint locations.)

What really intrigued me about the episode, however, was the existence of this informal language of road signals—either creative adaptations of the simple communicative tools available on an automobile (lights, turn/brake signals, horn) or, often, some gesture by the driver himself (a wave, "the finger," etc.). How do these things emerge, how are they transmitted, and how are they understood?        

The headlight flash for the speed trap seems, like most informal signals, to be of rather obscure origin. One source speculates that the gesture came into widespread practice only with the advent of a steering-column-mounted headlight control in the late 1960s, which made it simpler to "flash" than the old floor-positioned switch. Another idea is that headlight flashes (as well as some other signals) are introduced by people—like truckers—for whom the road is a job site, and so they are born as a kind of workplace lingo. Take, for instance, this account of a Greyhound bus driver in the New York Times in 1975: "Traveling west, the sun was level with the windshield, yet Al spotted a radar signal from an oncoming truck. This section of the turnpike was notorious for speed traps. 'Did you catch that?' I hadn't. 'To signal radar, first flash your headlights then make a circular motion with your hand.' " Informal road signals, then, are seen as a kind of secret code, like gang signs or Masonic hand symbols, which only certain groups understand. (The paranoid conclusion of this may be the "gang initiation killing" rumors of a few years back, in which motorists were warned that flashing their lights at another car would trigger a homicide.)

As with any communication, context is key. The simple headlight flash is a bullying move for a tailgating Ferrari on the Italian autostrada, a gentle reminder (or a stern rebuke, if done repeatedly) on a rural road that an approaching driver has not dimmed his brights, or a quiet alternative to a horn-honk at a stalled driver when the light turns green—not to mention a number of other reported uses, including signaling to a truck driver that he has cleared one's vehicle and can safely merge. In all these cases, the meaning of the signal seems to grow, awkwardly and organically, out of a need to convey things amid the complex interactions of traffic for which we have no "official" signals: that moment, for example, when you are trying to tell another driver that it is OK to make a turn in front of you.

Before the advent of electric signals, hand signals were an integral part of the official driving experience—an arm extended and bent downward down meant the driver was slowing down, for example. This language is long forgotten by most drivers, but a variety of unofficial signals still flourish—the most prominent, "the finger," needs no explanation. Nor does its opposite, the "thanks" wave. (There are regional variants on the latter: On narrow Seattle streets, where one person pulls to the side to allow another to pass, the wave is considered a proper reply; in Hawaii, they give the "shaka.") But there are still other situations for which people have never quite settled on the appropriate signal. How does one say that he's sorry? A correspondent to a British newspaper suggested a finger pointed to the head as a gun — I should be shot for such an epic gaffe! —but as one letters-column respondent (self-identified as the chairman of the "Polite Society") aptly noted, the problem with this "is that it can be misconstrued as meaning 'you should be shot'."

There is one other class of gestures worth noting, what I shall call the vehicle affinity experience; namely, people driving the same vehicle exchanging a wave. One of the most oft-cited examples of this is for Jeep drivers, and one strain of speculation says it emerged from soldiers waving to another in passing vehicles. Or perhaps it's because Jeep drivers were more likely to have their windows open and tops down. But the wave is hardly limited to people in Jeeps: One hears it talked about among drivers of Corvettes, Saabs, Volkswagen GTIs, Subarus, Harley-Davidsons, and others.

There seem to be two things at work here. The first is the general human bias in favor of self-similarity. Studies have shown this effect in myriad ways; people are more likely to be drawn toward those whose surnames begin with a shared letter (e.g., "B" people gave more money to Bush in 2000, "G"s gave more to Gore) and more likely to look favorably on those who share their birthday. This appears to hold true on the road: Studies have found, for example, that drivers are less likely to honk at cars of similar perceived status as their own.

Not honking is one thing, but a true vehicle affinity experience probably requires a second condition: Two drivers will exchange an outright wave only if their car in common is exceedingly rare or if it has a strong distinguishing feature or personality. (Think of the tweedy, imported cache of early Saabs or the rough-riding, free-spirited appeal of Jeep.) So, while you don't get a lot of Camry drivers waving at one another (they'd be busy, for one), the Prius has been highly wave-able. In a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm,Larry David turns to Jeff Garlin and exclaims, "See that? I waved to a guy in a Prius and he didn't wave back!" Jeff responds: "I don't wave to people in the same car as me." Larry's reply, perhaps harkening to that idea of kinship-based altruism alluded to earlier: "We're Prius drivers, we're a special breed." But even they might have trouble trying to apologize to one another in traffic.

Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.