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12 “Polite” Driving Habits That Are Actually Dangerous

Being a polite driver is great—unless it causes you to break traffic laws and put others in danger. Do everyone a favor and put these so-called polite habits in your rearview mirror.

Young woman sitting in drivers seat of car waiting for driving lesson
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Driving dos and don’ts

Nobody appreciates a major case of road rage—it can be terrifying and deadly—but while it’s important to be polite when driving, you can swing too far in the other direction. And guess what? These so-called polite habits can also be terrifying (even deadly!) on the road. Breaking traffic laws, whether out of anger or politeness, leads to chaos and dangerous driving conditions, says Ryan Pietzsch, an expert in driver safety education and training at the National Safety Council.

“In our defensive driving courses, we stress the importance of responsible and respectful driving behaviors, which includes obeying the rules of the road, predicting other road users’ actions and acting appropriately and in time to prevent incidents,” he says. “The key to being a safe driver—and the most ‘polite’ way to drive—is to be predictable.”

The rules of the road

Traffic rules aren’t arbitrary. They exist for a reason: Years of study have shown they are usually (but not always) the safest and most efficient way to move traffic, adds Jeff Benrud, the co-founder of American Off Road driving education and a former special ops member with 25 years of experience driving in the U.S. military, including in the Secret Service. But don’t be a stickler for following the rules if the situation changes, perhaps due to weather conditions, other drivers, an obstacle on the road, car problems or your location.

“The safest driver is the one who is aware of changing conditions on the road and can adapt to them, especially if someone else isn’t following the rules,” Benrud says. “Being a polite driver doesn’t mean meticulously following every traffic law regardless of whether it puts another driver in danger.”

Just like there are polite habits Uber drivers dislike, there are polite habits that driving experts dislike too. So we asked our experts to share their top driving tips, along with must-know etiquette rules and etiquette mistakes.

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Rear light of blue car
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Yielding to someone when you have the right of way

You’re driving down the road when you see someone stopped at a yield sign waiting to pull into traffic. It’s a busy day, so they may have been waiting awhile—the polite thing to do would be to stop and let them in, right? Driving etiquette says you shouldn’t do that. “If you give them the right of way, you will cause unnecessary backups behind you or even gridlock,” Pietzsch says. This can even cause a car accident because the drivers behind you won’t expect you to stop there.

Do this instead: Don’t stop unnecessarily. “You must take your turn in the proper order, when it is yielded to you,” he says. “Make eye contact with other drivers and proceed with caution when it is safe to do so.”

speed limit sign of 75 On the road from Kansas to Colorado.
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Driving exactly the speed limit in the fast lane on the highway

When it comes to car safety, not speeding is a top tip. But driving the speed limit in the fast lane is a great example of following the letter of the law to the detriment of other drivers, Benrud says. “You may think you’re doing other drivers a favor by holding them to the speed limit so they don’t drive dangerously or get a speeding ticket, but it’s actually really impolite and sometimes rage-inducing,” he says. “Because what you’re really doing is impeding the flow of traffic. You cannot and should not try to control other drivers’ behavior.”

Do this instead: Benrud says he’s not giving everyone permission to go wild, but the polite (and legal) thing to do is to drive the speed limit in the right lane and use the left, or “fast,” lane only to pass. “If other people are speeding, it’s not on you to make them stop. Leave that to law enforcement,” he adds. “You never know who you’re dealing with on the road, and you should do everything you can to avoid a road-rage situation.”

Stop Sign at Intersection
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Waving someone through a stop sign when it’s not their turn to go

Four-way stop signs are confusing, especially if you’re unsure who arrived first. (Which is why many city planners are replacing them with safer roundabouts.) If everyone is stopped and there’s confusion, it’s fine to wave the person to your right through—someone has to go first, after all. Problems start when you arrive at the stop sign first but then let someone else take your turn, Benrud says. This can cause other cars to enter the intersection and collide during the chaos.

Do this instead: Avoid the all-too-common situation in which everyone is stubbornly waving someone else through … and no one moves, Benrud says. “It’s fine to wave someone through once, but if they insist on you going first, take your turn,” he says.

Pietzsch adds that “you must go when it’s your turn and others have yielded the right of way to you to maintain orderly flow of traffic.”

Highway 36, Boulder Turnpike, Rocky Mountains, Boulder, Colorado
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Slowing down a lot or stopping to let someone merge onto the freeway

Merging onto a busy freeway can be a nail-biting experience, but the roads are designed to allow entering cars to build up to highway speed before “zipper merging” into the flow of traffic, Benrud says. For this to work properly, all the cars need to be driving at a similar speed. Slowing down a lot or stopping to let someone in is a driving mistake. Do it, and you could cause a backup on the road (at best) or a serious accident (at worst).

“And the polite thing to do is to let the other person merge safely. Don’t give them a tiny window or get aggressive about ‘your spot,'” he says. “They’re not ‘cutting in line’ in front of you; they’re just merging.”

Do this instead: You may need to slow down or speed up slightly so you don’t disrupt the flow of traffic at a merge point, but avoid slamming on your breaks or slowing down more than five to 10 miles per hour. “If you are maintaining a proper following distance, you should not have to slow down so much that you disrupt the flow of traffic,” Pietzsch says.

Follow the three-second and distance rules: Follow three seconds behind the car in front of you, adding at least one second for heavy traffic and another second for heavy merge areas for a total of five seconds between you and the vehicle in front of you. As Pietzsch explains, creating this space early enough will allow you to let others merge without requiring you to slow substantially when approaching merging traffic. If anyone has to come to a complete stop, it should be the vehicle merging onto the freeway, not the cars already driving on the freeway.

Aerial top view of parking lot with with varieties of colored vehicles
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Holding a parking spot for a friend

You’re at a busy venue, and your friends are just a minute away—it’s polite to hold an open parking spot for them by either standing in it or partially blocking it with your own car … isn’t it? After all, if you don’t help, they’ll have to circle until they find an open spot. And they had such a long commute!

But by being thoughtful to your friend, you’re being impolite to dozens of other people, making this one of the rudest driving habits. “This is inconsiderate and disrespectful behavior that can contribute to aggressive or even dangerous reactions from other road users,” Pietzsch says.

Do this instead: The polite thing to do, Benrud says, is to accept that parking spots are first-come, first-served spaces. Do not hold parking spots for other people, and don’t block available spots for any reason. “This is a great way to start a fight or cause a road-rage incident,” he says. “Don’t instigate a fight over a parking spot, and if tempers flare, don’t escalate the situation.”

cars parallel parking on the street
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Asking a passenger to get out of the car to help you parallel park

There’s one parking spot left on a busy city street, but it requires a tight parallel parking job. Your friend politely offers to hop out to “hold” traffic and direct you while you parallel park. Bad idea.

“Using a spotter to back up or parallel park is good practice. However, the spotter must be aware of pinch points and never get between any moving vehicle and a fixed object, and they should never stand in the middle of the road,” Pietzsch says.

The flow of traffic may temporarily stop while you park, but do not use a fragile human body to stop the traffic. This can lead to an accident and/or serious injury. This is especially risky during cold weather, making it one of the most important winter driving mistakes to avoid.

Do this instead: If you need a spotter, have your pal stand out of traffic and not between other vehicles. If parallel parking is not something that you are good at, find other parking arrangements nearby to avoid the skill entirely, Pietzsch says.

If you have a vehicle with a Parking Assist system, you can use the Advanced Driver Assist System (ADAS) to help you park, but never attempt this in heavy traffic, he says. “Like any new vehicle technology, drivers should practice in a safe location [like a low-traffic area or parking lot] before they use these features,” he says.

The woman calls the roadside assistance service.
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Stopping on the highway to help a broken-down car

Assisting a driver who is in trouble is both responsible and respectful—as long as you do it in a way that doesn’t create an unsafe situation, Benrud says. You shouldn’t try to block traffic with your car, and you should pull over only if you can do so completely. If it isn’t safe for you to pull over, wait until you can and then call emergency services. If you have a passenger or the hands-free-calling car feature, call 911 immediately. (That may be the ideal solution if you’re driving alone at night and worried about your own safety.)

Do this instead: If it’s safe for you to pull over, ensure that your vehicle is well off the travel portion of the road and your front wheels are turned away from the center line—this is called parking in the blocking position. “The most critical part of parking in a blocking position is to ensure that you have plenty of space between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you, otherwise known as buffer space,” Pietzsch says. “Parking too close can cause you to become trapped between the two vehicles if another vehicle strikes the blocking vehicle.”

He adds that you should activate your hazard lights to communicate to other road users. Adding flares, emergency triangles or traffic cones behind the blocking vehicle can help communicate to oncoming traffic that you are there. Never work on the traffic side of any vehicle. If this is necessary, call for assistance from a tow service or law enforcement.

Young Boy in Carseat with Snack
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Helping your kids while driving

Parents are pulled in many directions (sometimes literally!), and when your child really needs something—say, a snack or a dropped toy—the polite thing to do is to help them. That is, unless you’re driving. Prioritizing the needs of a passenger over paying attention to the road is incredibly dangerous.

“The act of driving takes a great deal of attention to the task. Helping children is a cognitive and manual distraction that takes your attention away from the ability to focus on the road and the act of driving,” Pietzsch says. The bottom line, Benrud says, is that any type of distracted driving is dangerous driving—regardless of how “polite” or “nice” the reason for your distraction may be.

Do this instead: “At the National Safety Council, we encourage all to just drive when behind the wheel,” Pietzsch says, adding that this means there should be no helping passengers, no phone use, no watching videos and no other tasks that pull your attention.

Urban Traffic Circle
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Stopping to let someone into a roundabout

Some of the most common driving mistakes have to do with intersections, like roundabouts. Similar to what you’ll encounter at a yield or stop sign, you’ll often see a driver stop in a roundabout to “politely” let another driver into the circle. But roundabouts are designed to keep traffic moving through an intersection in an efficient and safe way. When you stop, it disrupts the flow of traffic—at best confusing other drivers and at worst causing an accident.

“Roundabouts are a proven safety countermeasure because when used properly, they can substantially reduce crashes that result in serious injury or death,” Pietzsch says.

Do this instead: Follow the rules of the roundabout: Vehicles inside have the right of way.

Traffic Reflected in Side-View Mirror
Image by Marie LaFauci/Getty Images

Having someone follow you so they don’t get lost

You know how to get where you’re going, and your friends don’t—so you politely tell them to just follow you. Unfortunately, many drivers become so intent on not getting lost or losing the lead car that they make bad or illegal driving decisions. “Drivers who follow others often take risks that they otherwise wouldn’t to keep up with the other driver, such as running red lights, following too closely and pulling out in front of other drivers,” Pietzsch says. “These dangerous driving behaviors can result in serious collisions, and many times, the trailing vehicle ends up striking the very vehicle they are following.”

Do this instead: Use your car or phone GPS to navigate. “With today’s technology, there is very little reason that a driver couldn’t program an address into a phone or other GPS system before they depart,” he says. If you don’t have access to these, get written directions before departing. If you are following someone, do not break traffic laws to keep up with them.

Heavy afternoon traffic in Mountain View, Silicon Valley, California; cars stopped at a traffic light
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Scooching forward to let the car behind you cross the intersection

During busy times, you may see a line of cars waiting to go through a traffic light. Sometimes the last car through the light will squish or angle their car to “politely” allow one more car behind them to squeeze across. (That’s just one of the crazy things people do while driving!) However kind it may seem, this may result in the trailing car “blocking the box” or becoming stuck in the intersection when the light changes, impeding cross traffic, causing gridlock or even getting hit.

Do this instead: “Never enter an intersection that you cannot pass through, and don’t do anything to make others block the box,” Pietzsch says. “If a traffic signal is green but a car is unable to make it completely through the ‘box’ [aka the entire intersection], they should wait behind the stop line for the next cycle.”

Yield Sign on Bridge
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Stopping at a yield sign

This polite problem is the flip side of the driver who stops on a main road to let someone stopped at a yield sign into traffic. Yield signs are some of the most confusing road signs, leading to a lot of misunderstandings. This sign means that you should keep up your speed or slow down slightly as you merge onto the road, yet sometimes people think the “polite” thing to do is stop at a yield sign “just to be safe,” Benrud says.

“This is dangerous because drivers behind you and drivers on the other road will expect you to keep moving,” he says. “Stopping blocks the flow of traffic and can cause an accident.”

Do this instead: Stop at a yield sign only if you cannot safely enter the flow of traffic. Otherwise, you should keep moving, he says. The car with the yield sign must always yield the right of way.

About the experts

  • Ryan Pietzsch is an expert in driver safety education and training at the National Safety Council (NSC). He is responsible for advancing NSC driver training content, directing the NSC International Advisory Committee and advising the council on matters of driving regulations and standards.
  • Jeff Benrud is a former U.S. Special Operations Command operator with 25 years of experience driving in military special ops, including in the Secret Service. He is now the co-founder of American Off Road driving education, which specializes in truck and motorcycle safety along with defensive driving for law enforcement and civilians. He recently made headlines for winning the 48th annual International Baja 1000 in the iron man division—driving solo.

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen is a health, lifestyle and fitness expert and teacher. She covers all things wellness for Reader’s Digest and The Healthy. With dual masters degrees in information technology and education, she has been a journalist for 17 years and is the author of The Great Fitness Experiment. She lives in Denver with her husband, five kids and three pets.