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Travelers' teachable moments

Just how far should you go to convey information or encourage a certain behavior in a driver, transit rider, cyclist or pedestrian?

That was among the themes in a very social version of our weekly online chat about transportation issues. (I say "social" to distinguish it from our factual discussions of such topics as when a lane closure is going to end, or whether Metro should open stations later to save money. "Social" transportation discussions involve travelers complaining about each other.)

Part of the discussion involved how to convey our "walk left stand right" approach to Metro escalators. This is a follow-up note I received after the discussion:

"I tend not to climb the escalators (bad knees). So, if I see people in front of me standing to the left, I'll say something like "excuse me" (in a very friendly tone and with a smile), "I don't know if you ride the Metro often, so I hope you don't mind if I give you a friendly tip, but it would be appreciated if you would stand to the right if you aren't walking up, so that other people can pass. Unfortunately, if you don't, there are some people who are in a hurry and won't be very polite about it especially during rush hour." I usually add "Oh, and the train doors aren't like elevator doors -- if you stick an arm in them, they will just close on it. Hard. Best not to."

"Yes, just 'excuse me' as you try to pass works for that once, but I look at it as part of the 'teach a man to fish' theory. If you just say excuse me and pass them, they may think it was just you, keep blocking the escalators, and wonder why Washingtonians are so rude. If you nicely explain it's sort of the norm, they'll be aware and feel part of the system."

My first thought was, this is really polite. But you'd have to be on the long escalators at Dupont Circle, or Bethesda or Rosslyn to convey that much information. I think it's more likely travelers will take my shortcut: Just say, "Excuse me," walk on, and hope they get the idea.

As Dr. Gridlock, I've heard from all sorts of travelers who want to convey a message to other travelers to modify their behavior. No way is foolproof. Some are downright dangerous. Here's how it breaks down.

Say it. This should be the best, most rational and least threatening method. But you were probably thinking about the reactions our escalator rider gets about walk left-stand right. And imagine if the teachable moment involved a talk with someone eating aboard a Metro train. I've also heard from cyclists and pedestrians who shout behavioral advice to drivers at intersections. I think "say it" has the best chance of success if it's a message between the same types of travelers. In other words a pedestrian to a pedestrian, or a transit rider to a transit rider. People have a tendency to divide themselves into categories once they get in motion, and it becomes us against them.

Show it. For when words fail you. This usually involves drivers. To send a message to someone following too closely, for example, they tap the brakes or -- more aggressively -- turn on their window washers to spray the following car. But it also covers all sorts of hand gestures. The most common is meant to cool tempers after a near-collision. The miscreant makes one of several gestures to convey, "My fault. I know I goofed." The trouble is that there's no manual for these. The "I'm an idiot" gesture looks much like the "You're an idiot" gesture.

Act it out. This action, unfortunately, is usually meant to punish the perceived bad behavior. The category includes behavior in merging traffic. A driver believes that another motorist seeking entry to the lane has violated the unwritten code of conduct, so he gets right on the bumper of the lead car, denying access to the transgressor. Action leads to action, leading to rage. On a crowded train, this could be the exiting passenger who barrels straight into the person standing on the other side of the door. (Yes, the person shouldn't be blocking the exit. But there's no glory in sacking another commuter on a platform.)

This category also covers those who do the right thing, in silence, because they think it's possible another traveler will imitate the behavior.

I've heard two basic arguments for and against attempting teachable moments.

For: There aren't enough police to observe and correct bad behavior on the roads, rails or sidewalks. The only consequences most travelers face when they step out of line come from other travelers who admonish them or block them from reaping a reward from selfish conduct.

Against: In the typical confrontation between travelers, there's too little time and way too much stress for teaching to be effective. You could be wrong; the perceived bad behavior may have a legitimate explanation. The exchange you start with the best of intentions may escalate out of your control.

What's your view on when -- if ever -- to correct another traveler's behavior?

By Robert Thomson  |  April 20, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Biking , Driving , Safety , transit  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock  
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I've noticed a recent fad in the DC area whereby people who don't like the way others are driving will get behind the other driver and then turn on their high-beams. Like that's going to do any good, other than antagonizing the person. Stupid idea.

Posted by: 1995hoo | April 20, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

If someone does that to me ill just slow down to a crawl.

Posted by: wpjunk | April 20, 2010 10:19 AM | Report abuse

As tempting as it can be, I never try to "correct" other drivers' behavior. It's dangerous, and the other driver is surely not going to be receptive to any lesson I'd be teaching.

I just try to stay safe and figure that law enforcement will eventually catch up with the aggressive drivers.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | April 20, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: Yeah, my inclination is the same. It's tempting. But don't do it. You won't be able to control the results. You risk putting yourself and others in a dangerous position without the likelihood of a positive result.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | April 20, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

I took an online defensive driving class that GEICO was sponsored, and I thought it was quite good. A few things that the class emphasized was that it was always safer to have impatient and/or aggressive drivers in front of you instead of behind you, so you should make every effort to let a tailgater pass you, even if it means pulling onto the shoulder of the road. The class also said to NEVER wave to signal a pedestrian to walk in front of you; you have to stop if they're in the crosswalk, but never signal to them. I'm guessing that this is to avoid your being alleged to be liable if you wave a pedestrian into the path of a speeding car next to you.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | April 20, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

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