Sunday 23 Oct 2016

A Code for the Road
Sjef Frenken

I could tell at lunch today that Jack was still driving his rented automobile.

"You know what we, jockeys of the four-cylinder chariot, lack?" asked Jack.

"No idea," I said, "maybe cheaper insurance, no deductible, and no increased premiums even after our fifth accident?"

"No," said Jack, "a code. We need a code."

"Of conduct?" I asked, thinking of all the times that I'd let drivers into my queue, without getting even a nod of thanks for, or even acknowledgment of, my good deed; or the many times that my honked reminder of some other driver's egregious error only got me the middle-finger salute in return for my public service.

"No," said Jack, "A code of communication."

I said "Why do we need a code. We have means of communication. There's your horn. Claxon, if you will. It works very simply: either you use it or you don't. You have your turn-signals. What more do you want? Oh, and sometimes opposing traffic will warn you by turning their headlights on and off that there's a speed trap ahead of you. No need for a code."

"That's where you're wrong, my friend," said Jack. "The claxon and the turn-indicators are very primitive instruments, we're talking Neanderthal here. Sure it can warn other people of a dangerous situation, or other drivers that you are about to make a turn; hell, you can even get a good-looking chick to turn her head, but that's about it. I'm thinking of something a little more sophisticated than that."

I said "Like what?"

"For instance," said Jack, "suppose you want to thank somebody for letting you into a queue. How do you do that?"

I said "I could hold up my hand, or wave or something."

"Which one - a wave or what?" asked Jack.

I said "does it matter?"

"You're damn right it does," said Jack. "Holding up your hand could also mean STOP RIGHT THERE. And waving your hand could mean NO, NO, NO. So unless we have a uniform code, you can't really tell what any hand signal means."

I said "so what do you propose?"

"Aha," said Jack, eager to expound on his proposal, "I'm glad you asked. Take 'I'm sorry', for instance, say when you've cut someone off and want to apologize. How about making the Eastern sign of bending your head forward and bringing up one flat hand perpendicular to the road and touching your forehead. The bowed head shows humility, and the hand shows respect."

I said "the Eastern greeting is like that, but they use two hands, as if they're praying."

"That would be better," said Jack, "but we need to keep one hand on the wheel at all times. So my idea is better."

I said "what else? How would you say 'thank you'?"

Jack said "A raised hand, waving a little bit."

I said "any others?"

"You bet," said Jack. "Take a situation where you want to pass someone on the inner lane. What do most people do?"

I said "They start to tailgate, trying to intimidate you into moving over."

"Now that's stupid," said Jack. "For one thing it is dangerous for everyone around you as well as yourself. If you have to stop suddenly, there isn't enough reaction time to prevent a busted rear-end and a crumpled front-end. You know how they signal you to move over in Europe? They flash their headlights, while staying far enough behind not to cause a dangerous situation. It's not intimidating, and traffic flows smoothly."

"How about someone's bright lights bothering you in your rear-view mirror?" I asked.

"Just slowly wave your hand across your rear-view mirror back and forth, like a wiper-blade," said Jack.

I said "what if another driver's rear tire is under inflated or dangerously low?"

"Hold up your hand horizontal to the road, and then stick one, two, three, or four fingers up in the air to tell him which tire."

I said "how would he know which tire was number 3, for example?"

"Easy," said Jack, "number them like the four engines of an airplane: the one farthest away on the left (that would be your left-rear tire) is number one, your left front tire is number two, your right front tire is number 3 and the right rear one is number 4."

"What else?" I asked.

"Suppose the other driver's turn-signal is on, making other people think he's about to change lanes, but it's been flashing for a long time. Instead of holding your hand flat, you bring your fingers together, not in a fist, but stretched out, as if you're making a puppet, and then quickly open and close your fingers, turning the fingers either left or right, to indicate the direction his turn-signal is flashing."

I said "what if you want to tell the other driver that he's too close on my tail for the speed at which we're travelling?"

"I was thinking of holding up both hands together and moving them apart, but that would mean you'd have to take both hands off the wheel, and that's a no-no. What I do now is first tap my brake lightly to flash the rear lights. If that doesn't work, I slow down until the car ahead of me is about twice the distance from before and then I accelerate to leave the car behind me a safe distance to my rear. I do that enough times till he gets the message or passes me."

I said, "I guess those are kind of signs."

Jack said "you do what you can. Maybe I can think of something better, but that's it for the moment for that situation. Anyhow, what do you think of it so far?"

"Sounds pretty good," I said. "I'll give it a try."

"I was thinking of calling it ASL," said Jack, "Automobile Signal Language."

"Sorry," I said, "the initialism ASL has already been taken by the folk who invented the American Sign Language for the deaf. You'll have to come up with something else."

For a moment I thought of suggesting Drivers' On-Road Communication System, but the acronym was sure to hurt Jack's feelings, and besides, it seemed to me that there was some merit in Jack's idea.

One problem is that too many cars have tinted glass, so you wouldn't be able to see the other driver, or the other driver wouldn't be able to see you, or both.

As I was leaving the Bayshore Shopping Centre, I let someone cut into the line of traffic. I'll never know whether he or she thanked me or not. Damn that tinted glass!

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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