Cameron Beatty is an associate professor at Snow College. He has driven in Beijing and Tokyo and with much effort has now learned to drive in Ephraim, Utah. He suggests that the local drivers' training program could revise its curriculum to meet local needs.
"When we were learning to drive we were told, `Don't look at the driver, look at the car.' I never knew why they told us that, but no doubt it had something to do with the notion that, while we were looking the other guy in the eye, his car would do something unexpected."Such admonitions may have validity in metropolitan areas, where eye contact with oncoming drivers makes about as much safety sense as making eye contact with fellow pedestrians on the busy sidewalks of New York, but in some parts of the country it's considered downright impolite to ignore the people with whom you share the roadways. In the smaller towns this is just as strong a social rule as the one that insists that you make eye contact and exchange greetings with the folks you share the sidewalks with. If you live there (or want to) it's socially responsible to `howdy' your neighbors wherever you meet them. Now, this doesn't mean that one drives down the streets and roads automatically waving at anything that moves - that's cheating; it's more a way of avoiding people than of making contact with them.
"The first thing you have to do, therefore, is identify the oncoming vehicle. This can be a daunting task when you think about it. First of all there is a bewildering number of makes and models that have to be identified and catalogued. When you consider all the variables, it's no surprise that there are so few duplications of vehicles, models or even colors. It's as if the automobile advertising were true in this case, and our cars do indeed form a distinct part of our identities. True, more than one person might own a Ford, for example, but we have - and use - our choice of model, number of doors, year, color and distinctive dents to identify ourselves to our neighbors when we are on the move. Nobody else drives vehicles that look like ours.
"Having identified the vehicle, you know with 99 percent certainty who is driving it. In my case, if it's a sky blue 1950s vintage pickup truck in near-mint condition, it's the guy who puts gas and oil in my car. I know it's him driving, because he doesn't let anybody else get behind the wheel of that baby. The Doc drives a bright red Jeep Cherokee, not so much to make midnight deliveries in the hinterlands as to transport himself to some of the area's more remote trout streams. The Doc's a demon trout hunter, you see. The Doc's brother-in-law, on the other hand, lives to hike, camp and ski with his whole, rather large family. So he uses a white, 4X4 VW van to transport self, family, neighborhood and equipment.
"But the reasons for our choices are unimportant; for the most part, our vehicles serve only to provide identifying characteristics. If they don't do that, we are invisible to our neighbors. Several days a week, the wife of the local Chevy dealer and I pass each other as we deliver our kids to school in the morning. She invariably howdies me when I'm driving my Blazer, but when I'm driving my wife's Audi I might as well be from out of town. Or in disguise.
"OK, you've identified the vehicle as that of someone you should howdy. Now what do you do? Well, it turns out that the wave is as important as the recognition and here is where the driver training program needs to get with it. As in most greetings, the closeness of the relationship will determine the effusiveness of the wave. Folks here are what people in other part of the country call laid back about this sort of thing. If it's a close friend, of course, you show no restraint; you lift your right hand from the steering wheel, lean forward and move your hand from side to side as if trying to rub flyspecks off the inside of your windshield. But if it's only a nodding acquaintance or the man you see every day at the same spot in the road, or somebody you would howdy at the post office or the City Cafe, you need to be more circumspect. Flapping hands would be unseemly; that's for city people and kids.
"In howdying acquaintances, the movement of the hand decreases as the distance of the relationship increases, and is invariably determined by the person who has lived here the longest. If the person to be howdied is a business acquaintance, a simple raising of the hand from the wheel and a slight inclination of the head will do. If it's a nodding acquaintance, you keep your hand on the wheel and simply unwrap the fingers from it, producing sort of a stationary wave. And if you're driving down the street and somebody give you an index-finger stationary wave you had better find out who it is. He knows who you are and expects you to recognize him next time you pass.
"Civility is important no matter where you live. The rules of neighborliness may differ from region to region, but they must be observed. One problem has arisen, however; all my friends' kids are becoming old enough to be driving the family vehicles. They don't know me from Adam's off ox, and I often find myself waving at perfect strangers driving very familiar cars. It's a confusing situation that proper drivers' education could solve."
- Roger Baker is associate professor of English/education at Snow College. Comments or questions about "Learning Matters" may be addressed to Dr. Roger Baker, English Department, Snow College, Ephraim, UT 84627.