Courtesy can go a long way with drivers—but sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone. Here’s how to decide.
By Bob Mionske
You’ve probably encountered this scenario many times while riding: You and a driver approach the same space on the road. Maybe the motorist waves you through an intersection, or perhaps you indicate to the driver to pass you. One of you accepts the gesture, and you go your separate ways.
Because cyclists share the road with other users, it’s a good idea to be polite and cooperative. But what if an accident occurs after your interaction? The person who waved could be held liable depending upon the location of the accident.
In Ohio, among other states, waving someone on cannot be interpreted as anything other than a simple gesture of politeness. In these jurisdictions, you are not telling the other person that it is safe to go; you are merely offering the other party the right-of-way. It is still that person’s responsibility to decide if it is legal and safe. If he or she proceeds and a collision occurs, the only people at risk of liability are those involved in the accident.
In states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey, however, you may be at fault if you wave someone through and a collision results. Courts in these jurisdictions would look at all the facts of the case to decide if your wave was a simple courtesy to yield the right-of-way or if it communicated that it was safe to proceed.
If you’re unsure of the rules where you’re riding, refrain from directing traffic. If your gesture could be interpreted as “it’s safe to proceed,” you assume responsibility for the other person’s safety—and no matter how noble your intentions, you don’t want to take that on.
Become familiar with the laws in your state before you take to the road, then use common sense to decide whether it’s safe to be courteous. When facing a driver at a four-way stop, for example, as long as there is no other traffic (Scenario 1, at top), you probably don’t need to worry about waving the driver through. On a busy road (Scenario 2, above) you’re better off not encouraging someone to proceed, as he or she may violate another person’s right-of-way, or hit a pedestrian or cyclist—then blame you.
Research and assistance by Rick Bernardi, JD. Illustration: Erin Benner