Can Waving Help Drivers and Cyclists Get Along?

It doesn't hurt to show a little friendliness on the road. It may even keep you safer. (Photo: Matt Gibson/flickr).

If you’re from one of the faster-paced parts of the U.S., New York for instance, the last thing you’re going to do is take time out of your busy day to wave at passersby, let alone stop and exchange pleasantries about the weather.

But in some parts of America — the South or the Midwest, for instance — the friendliness is contagious, and perfect strangers will engage you with a tip of the hat and warm “Good morning!” In those parts of the world, they know that swimmers are probably waving, not drowning.

A new website seems to have been set up solely to encourage cyclists and drivers — groups often annoyed at each other — to calm the waters and wave a greeting. Here’s a sample:

Cyclist. Motorist. Both people. Both going places. But at some point we made up a story about how different we all are. It’s time we restore some common courtesy to life’s highway. We suggest applying something simple and universal—a wave. See if it doesn’t make your day flow a little smoother. Roll nice y’all.
It would be good if drivers and cyclists built a rapport, because the relationship is rather deadly at the moment. In 2012, according to federal safety figures for the most recent year available, 726 bicycle riders were killed by cars in the U.S. In England, where both casualties and ridership is on the rise, it was 109 deaths in 2013. The No. 1 contributing factor in the British cases was " failure to look properly," a statistic that might drop if drivers had personal relationships with cyclists and become aware of the need to share the road.

bicyclist waving in Vietnam
A waving cyclist in Vietnam obviously respects large motor vehicles. (Photo: Robert S. Donovan/flickr)

It begins with common courtesy. The Midwesterner’s wave is accompanied by a big, beaming smile, and that’s something that’s also rare on Big City streets. But Dr. Alex Lickerman, a practicing Buddhist and former director of primary care at the University of Chicago, writes in Psychology Today that, well, a smile is contagious:

In smiling at strangers, I acknowledge their humanity, and in doing that, in reminding myself of it, I promote peace. How? By bringing joy to others that's far out of proportion to the investment required.

Sure, he writes, we get preoccupied with our own issues, we don’t feel we have time to stop and chat (something that a wave can solicit), and we offer folks false smiles they can tell right away aren’t genuine. But go the extra mile, make it real, and you’ll get more back than you put in.

people waving in madagascar
Waving to strangers in Madagascar. (Photo: IAmNotUnique/flickr)

Smiling is good for you, says a recent college study. A bunch of students were asked to imitate someone who was fake-smiling (with just the lips) and another group copied a genuine smile (lips, eyes, facial muscles — a so-called "Duchenne" smile). The heart rates of the real smilers went down faster.

I was reminded of all this by a brief film we saw in church last week. It’s a Protestant church and a Buddhist video, but the principles are universal. A young man, walking down the street, stops to give money to a poor woman and her daughter, is kind to a dog, helps an old woman wheel her pushcart across the street and brings bananas to a shut-in. Oh, and he waters a plant, too.

By the end of the video, the dog is bringing the guy his lunch, the beggar’s daughter is in school, the old lady with the pushcart is smiling and waving, there’s a party in the shut-in’s apartment, and even the plant is thriving. The message: A little kindness goes a long way. On Youtube, more than five million people have watched this video: