The Bird, the Wave, and the Shaka

My latest Slate column is up, and the subject is the informal language of the road (and yes I know about the Australian ‘waggling pinkie,’ but for editing reasons, etc., it got cut). For space reasons I also didn’t get into the whole gamut of bicyclist/motorcyclist/pedestrian gestures — though I remember at one Brooklyn crosswalk I was turning right and a person about to enter the crosswalk did an elaborate bow/sweep of the hand to urge me through, to which my reply was to try to apologize for violating the right of way. Then there was a secondary round of strange gestures in response to the first. And then, of course, the driver behind me honked.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 at 1:34 pm and is filed under Traffic Culture, Traffic Psychology, Traffic Signals. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “The Bird, the Wave, and the Shaka”

  1. Zebee Says:

    I had to laugh at “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”. I dunno how many Harley riders think they are driving Harleys, even if many other motorcyclists think that’s about right…

    Waving (or nodding in places that drive on the left) is common to bikers the world over. It is an affinity thing, same as when you sit next to another rider at lights you exchange greetings. Agile mammals in a world full of dangerous lumbering dinosaurs, we acknowledge each other’s choice to ride, even when you have to share the road with cars.

    I find cyclists do it too and for the same reason as motorcyclists.

    Due to more arm visibility motorcyclists may have more signals. On the local racer roads there’s “Slow down for hazard” which is patting the air with your hand, used for cops as well as for bad road surface. The specific cops ahead signal is arm up in the air with first finger extended and rotating hand to suggest a rotating police car light. (That’s an old one of course, but still in use, the same way level crossings are marked with a steam train graphic here)

    “Your indicator is on” is arm extended so fist can be seen, then open and close your hand at the rate an indicator flashes.

    I do wish there was a “turn your fog lights off you wanker” signal, but even if there was they wouldn’t take notice.

  2. John Says:

  3. SteveL Says:

    * I think in the UK it is an offence to warn of speed traps by flashing your headlights.

    * One cultural issue is what do indicator lights mean? In some countries/cities, signalling intent is weakness. It’s a request “please can you let me change lane” that is up to those in other lanes to ignore. But it some countries -and France springs to mind- it’s a signal of intent. If you indicate on a french autoroute, it means you are warning people your vehicle is about to change lanes and they should create space. There’s no request involved.

  4. E.N. Says:


    Regarding the Ferrari on the Autostrada; I lived in Italy for 2.5yrs, its not just Ferraris. Any car approaching quickly from behind will flash you (even if you are already going 100mph)- the polite ones only once or twice, the impolite ones repeatedly. The worst are the X5s and Cayennes with their HID beams mounted much higher than other cars. Even German cars in Italy will do this, while in Germany they’ll leave the left blinker on as an indication that they are on a “high speed run” and resort to flashing only if necessary.

    I learned of another practice while working in Oman where truckers would – having noticed a car queuing behind them on the highway – put their right blinker on indicating it was safe to pass (as they could see ahead, and you the follower could not), while a left blinker would warn that it was not safe to pass. This system requires a lot of faith in your fellow man. Since most of the truck drivers were from the subcontinent I assumed they brought this system with them.

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