Have a Middle-Finger-Free Ride: 16 Tips for Road Trippers Who Don’t Drive a Lot

published Jul 24, 2016
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(Image credit: Tatiana Chekryzhova)

Road trips are a great way to get out of town on the cheap, and record numbers of people are hitting the road on vacation this summer. But before you hop on the subway to pick up your rental car, it’s a smart idea to brush up on both driver’s ed and driver’s etiquette so you can be summer road trip savvy.

I Don’t Drive a Lot. What Do I Need to Know?

It boils down to two things. You need to know…

  • The informal language of motorists
  • How not to piss off other drivers

A quick note: I’m writing this from the perspective of driver in the U.S., so if where you drive involves different laws or different sides of the road, adjust the advice accordingly.

The Informal Language of Motorists

My understanding of this informal road language comes from years driving on the highways of Miami and Atlanta. But if you’d like to learn a little bit of the “why,” there’s a great piece on Slate that explores how these communication tools came to be.

If someone driving the other way flashes their brights at you, it means one of two things…

Your headlights aren’t on, even though they should be. Or there’s a cop ahead with a speed gun and your friendly passing motorist is giving you a heads up about it so you have a chance to slow down and avoid a ticket.

If someone driving behind you flashes their brights, they’re trying to give you the go-ahead.

For instance, if you’ve got your turn signal on because you’re attempting to change lanes, the person in that lane behind you might blink their headlights a few times to let you know you’re clear.

If you ever need to say thank you to another driver, give them a wave.

If somebody lets you in with a flash of their lights, it’s polite to throw up your arm and give them a short wave to say “thanks.”

If somebody waves at you, it could mean a few things…

They’re either trying to say thank you, trying to say sorry, mistakenly think they know you, or they drive the same car as you and appreciate your fine choice of selecting a Jeep automobile.

Horns are meant to get attention.

In general, I try to be pretty “road zen,” which means I don’t use my horn to express anger (the middle finger, as mentioned in our title, is quite efficient on its own). But I will use my car horn for two similar but distinct reasons: To let another driver know they need to pay attention (like to a green light that’s just changed from red), or to let another driver know they need to pay attention (to me, cruising through their blind spot as they try to change lanes).

(Image credit: Jacob Lund)

How Not to Piss Off Other Drivers

Sticking to the rules of the road—both formal and informal—will help to avoid accidents and to ensure your road trip is middle-finger-free. I pooled most of these grievances from the top of AskReddit threads like “What’s your best advice for new drivers?,” so know they’re certainly common gripes.

Keep right; the left lane is the fast lane.

If you’re getting passed on the right, you’re in the wrong lane. Even if you think you’re going fast enough, there’s probably somebody who wants to go faster. Put aside your personal opinions on what other drivers should do, and just know this: It’s better and safer for everyone if motorists all agree to keep right for faster traffic to pass.

Signal when you change lanes.

Actually, use turn signals anytime you’re changing position. And signal early. Even when you think there’s nobody around. Always use them, but never trust them. Turn signals are a suggestion, not a commitment. That’s road rule #1: Assume everybody on the road is actively trying to kill you.

Speed up to merge onto the interstate.

That long ramp is there to give you time to accelerate to meet the speed of the cars already on the highway. But…

Don’t use the exit lane to cut ahead of traffic.

That’s a one-way ticket to roadrageville.

Move over for cars on the shoulder, or anyone trying to get on the highway.

If it’s safe and traffic is light, move to the left lane when approaching an entry ramp; the people getting on the highway will appreciate the extra room. And also move over a lane to give room around police or broken down cars on the shoulder (in some areas, you can even get a ticket for neglecting to change lanes).

Don’t hang out in another car’s blind spot.

You learned in driver’s ed that the blind spot is that space towards the rear of a car that the driver can’t comfortably see in their normal range of vision. So if you spend more than a half-second there while you’re trying to pass another car, just know you’re totally invisible.

Know the right of way is not yours to give away.

This is still the best driving advice, word for word, my dad ever gave me. You might think you’re being nice by allowing people to go before you at a stop sign or wave people out in front of you on the street, but in reality, you just cause confusion and create a situation where other drivers aren’t sure what’s going on. That said…

Stick to the zipper rule.

When two lanes of cars are merging into one, especially in heavy traffic, most drivers expect to alternate between the left and right lane, no matter which technically has the signal to yield. Zippering is the most efficient method for getting everybody on their way.

If your windshield wipers are on, your headlights should be on, too.

Even if you can see fine through the rain, you should turn your headlights on so other people can see you better.

Know when to turn off high beams.

Your car’s high beams, or “brights,” can be useful to see better on unlit back roads, but turn them off (so you have just your normal operating headlights on) as soon as you see an oncoming car. There’s really no reason for high beams in city driving.

And one more thing…

Put down your phone.