A few months ago, our theme was ‘Values’. The term ‘a set of values’ is often used by those self-aggrandising people who want to take moral high-ground and suggest that they, but not other people, have an honourable code by which they act in all things. I’m suspicious of people with inflexible moral rules, either for themselves or other people, but, of course, you can’t analyse each and every situation you find yourself in, so we do tend to develop standard responses to identifiable situations.
When I was a child, my parents belonged to the RAC. ‘Belonged’ is what you said back then since, although the RAC Club in Pall Mall with its lush Turkish Baths and Swimming Pool was virtually a separate entity from the get-you-home motoring organisation, the latter still fostered the idea that it was a ‘club’. Once I learned that RAC patrolmen, in vans or, more common back then, riding motorcycle combinations, saluted members that they encountered on the road, I was always on the lookout for a blue vehicle with its white logo coming in the other direction. When I saw one, which usually happened on a trip of any distance, up popped my little arm and, indeed, the uniformed driver or rider reciprocated. How grand and important I felt and, even more attractive to me was my belief that they positively had to salute you – indeed you could report them if they didn’t. This last point did have some bearing in fact, since the original reason for the salute in the early part of the 20th Century was to confirm that the road was clear of ‘speed traps’ – in other words that there was no bobby with a tape measure, stopwatch and whistle waiting round the next bend. If they didn’t return your salute, then beware.
So, despite my embarrassment at my juvenile self and that, on reflection, that little boy’s arm wave looked embarrassingly close to the rather fey lifting of the lower arm that Hitler favoured in response to his follower’s version of the ‘Roman Salute’, I still think of what other people might call just ‘waving’ when driving as ‘saluting’. I salute people quite a lot, though I have developed a repertoire of less contentious styles over the years. Which one I use might depend on my mood, the size of the favour done me by the other driver, and a sometimes unconscious reading of who they are.
I retain a less fascistic variant of the formal lifting of the arm, palm forward – that’s for serious occasions. At the other end, there are the raised fingers, thumb still tucked under the steering wheel – that’s for times when I feel that a casual, informal response is needed. These might be accompanied by a nod of the head or, even (and this is testimony to how far I have come since my youth) a smile. I draw the line at a thumbs-up. But whilst I might vary my saluting style, I am lavish in my use of it. Some people might ask themselves whether a favour was done. They might judge that the other driver should have ceded instead or, even more pedantically, that there was room for two cars through the gap anyway. I know these mindsets, I was there once, but now I am profligate – I’ll salute anyone because … well what harm can it do?
At the other end, there is the salute to someone who has done you no favours at all. That is the tenuous kinship salute. This one is so difficult. Years ago I used to drive 2 cylinder Citroens and, in Britain, this always seemed to engender a wave from the driver of a similar vehicle coming in the other direction. Back then I was not the extravagant saluter I am now, I was far meaner with my greetings and thinking myself a man of the world, I reasoned that 2CV owners in France didn’t wave to each other, just as Escort drivers didn’t do so in the UK. I therefore left their salutes unreciprocated. In my more mellow years, I now realise that was mean-spirited. Today I still drive vehicles that get waved at, in certain situations.
I ride a motorbike, and in the country, but not in towns, bike riders will often wave at each other, but they won’t wave at scooter riders. I drive an old Citroen and other old Citroen owners will wave in practically any situation. Owners of new Citroens used to wave once but, now, they probably don’t even recognise that what I’m driving is a Citroen. I drive a motorhome and other motorhome people wave … and wave … and wave. All round bloody Europe. Even in mid Summer where it seems every 10th vehicle you see is a motorhome. And now I sometimes drive a Nissan Cube, and these were so unwanted that I hardly ever see another. But when we do – We Wave! In all these situations, until relatively recently, I only reciprocated but, again, in my relatively recently acquired spirit of blanket goodwill, I now practice the pre-emptive salute. This can cause confusion when I’m driving my Cube and wave at a motorhome but … well what harm can it do?
The longer you drive, the more you find history repeating itself. Situations arise and, before it has even happened, your brain has identified it as Encounter B197, Variant C and primed you to act on it accordingly.
A lot of my driving is done in London. City driving is quite different from country driving. It takes place a close quarters and many drivers are frustrated by traffic. I’ve lived most my adult life in London, so I think of myself as a Londoner. When I go away in Britain, I’m used to being asked where I come from, and to receiving the subsequent reaction which, too often, involves a not too discreet rolling of the eyes and a polite variant of ‘London’s a shithole and all the people there are arses’. This is odd. If I said I came from anywhere else, people would probably try to say something pleasant, even if they didn’t actually think it. But the consensus seems to be that London is so up itself that it constantly needs to be put in its place.
I understand why someone coming from a small community, where everyone knows everyone’s name and business, would find it strange that I don’t know the names of the people who live next door to me. They take this as a sign of London’s uncaring nature, the dour anonymity of its residents and its image as a place where you can die and no-one ever notices until the smell gets too bad. This then extends to the idea that Londoners are all rude and unpleasant.
This year I was driving around Sussex over a busy Bank Holiday. Apart from the curled lip at the L word from a shop owner when he nosily asked where I’d come from, I noticed something else. Driving down back lanes, with a fair amount of traffic around, meant a fair amount of pulling in to let the oncoming driver past. Do this in London and it is very rare for the driver who you let through not to give you the courtesy of an acknowledgment – a flash of the lamps or a wave of some sort. In Sussex, naturally there was the odd jovial Land Rover driving type who gave a jaunty wave, but on a percentage scale, I’d judge a maybe sub 75% acknowledgement rate, compared with the over 95% I’d expect in London.
Of course, this is the exact reverse of what country folk would imagine is the case, but it doesn’t mean that Londoners are nicer people, circumstances just cause them to understand better the need for co-existence with your neighbours, and the basic politenesses that ensure it. Also, everyone’s a stranger to Londoners, so they don’t have that scorn, or at best suspicion, of outsiders.
I can’t pretend to a noble history of driving. I have shameful skeletons in my long-term cupboard such as the woman who felt no option than to push her children into a ditch when she saw me approaching, set up in what my youthful self considered an elegant drift. Things like that have caused me to temper my behaviour, but I can’t say that I am a changed man, entirely.
To save some of you younger people from making the same painful journey that I have, there is a whole book of driving etiquette to be written. Some people are naturally boorish and unpleasant, but there exists a whole section who would not dream of behaving outside a car the way they behave inside one. This isn’t just because the car offers them semi-armoured protection from irate fists. It’s more that the cocooning of the car isolates them enough from their fellow road users so that they just see the metal, not their doppelgangers seated inside.
The Highway Code is OK, but it doesn’t really engage with the real world. For instance you are advised that, when a car flashes its headlamps at you, the driver is saying ‘I have priority’. Of course what they are saying is ‘Why don’t these bloody windscreen washers work?’. So, as an adjunct, here is a list of totally random guidelines taken from the forthcoming publication “Mr Sean Patrick’s Guide To Motoring Etiquette – Being The Everyday Maxims Of A Gentleman Automobilist”
• Remember that not everyone is in the same state of mind as you. Assume that it’s much worse.
• Remember that not everyone realises what an incredibly competent driver you are.
• Remember that not every driver is the same age as you. Assume they are too young to have a licence, or so old that they never needed to take a test.
• Remember that custodianship of an Audi does not automatically make someone a bad person.
• Remember that the warm feeling you get when you choose to unexpectedly stop on a near deserted main road just to let someone across in front of you is not the same warm feeling the driver behind gets after nearly driving into the back of you.
• Remember that hiding behind tinted windows suggests emotional insecurity.
• Remember that the cars behind you are going somewhere too. Fiddling with your satnav, not noticing the lights have changed then shooting forward through a late amber is selflish.
• Remember that, although you think you’re an evangelist to good taste, to most of us your music sucks and playing it loud with the windows down doesn’t make it more interesting, it just lets us know what crap you like.
• Remember not to assume that I’m not a sociopath. Arguably one in ten times you’ll be wrong.
• Remember to be lavish in your thanks for anyone who stops to let you through a single car gap, or out of a side street. Give a big friendly wave, even if the chances are they just pulled in to look at a map.
• Remember that, just because someone is driving a BMW X6 doesn’t make them a bad person – they might not be the owner and have only stolen it.
• Remember that driver you see in front of you is not actually there. They are somewhere in the Aether, chuckling away to the wit and wisdom of ‘Top DJ’ Chris Moyles or the cheeky guy on Gardener’s Question Time..
• Remember that if I failed to adhere to one or more of the above golden pieces of advice, I’m deeply sorry.