Could Drivers In Hawaii Be Too Polite?

Second only to Massachusetts in lack of driving aggression, Hawaii is a place that is well-known for the courtesy of its drivers. However, it seems that many Hawaiian drivers may be too polite for the new age of driving, as their courtesy and cautious driving may be contributing to increased traffic congestion. According to Advertiser transportation writer Mike Leidermann, “ Hawaii 's drivers tend to view themselves as cautious, safe, and courteous, but those may be the very qualities that contribute to growing congestion and frustration on the road." For example, they stop to let cars merge, slow down too much when it rains and yield to drivers making left turns across traffic. While this may appear to be an act of kindness, it may not necessarily be in everyone's best interests.

Traffic Congestion on the island of Oahu

While some professional observers believe that Hawaii’s nice drivers need to become more aggressive, a closer look at some of the complaints indicates that the issue is not courtesy or aggression but rather a lack of driving skill and tactical abilities. According to a recent survey, one of the most common problems is the driver who lets too many cars merge into the lane ahead. While this may appear to be an act of good intentions on behalf of the driver, some argue that it is actually a very limited act of courtesy, as the driver relates to the needs of drivers ahead but fails to consider the needs of those drivers behind him. According to Liedermann, this type of driver has perceptual limitations and is unskilled in the social nuances of driving.

Because Hawaii 's infrastructure is unable to handle the increasing demands of vehicle traffic, many traffic experts have become concerned that modern traffic lacks a "culture of the roadway"— a common set of values that the vast majority of drivers and other road users know about, understand and practice. While drivers in Hawaii have their ways of communicating courtesies, such as the uniquely Hawaiian "shaka sign", even this is becoming contentious as driving congestion increases and impatience begins to predominate. According to Transportation Department spokesman Scott Ishikawa, "It seems like you don't see that little wave as much as you used to here."

The issue does pose somewhat of an ethical debate: Should drivers in Hawaii make a conscious effort to be more aggressive and less courteous in an effort to improve the flow of traffic? According to University of Hawaii psychology professor, Leon James, Ph. D, “…one needs to see that being polite is always preferable. But yielding at the wrong place, waving others on, and slowing down when one is supposed to keep the flow going, are not polite things to do but aggressive driving acts because of how they affect the safety and convenience of others."

In his book Driving Lessons, driving expert Lawrence Lonero calls for an expanded notion of "driving skills" – a shift from one that focuses mainly on steering, braking, and acceleration to something far more comprehensive. He writes, "In the modern, human-engineering sense, driving skills can also involve the purely mental activity needed to maintain situational awareness and manage vehicle systems in a wide range of conditions.” While advanced driving skills are usually thought of in terms of emergency handling skills, these are rarely needed and, if they are learned, they easily degrade over time. Advanced skills in situational awareness – in knowing what's going on around you and having the skills to deal with it – however, are going to be essential to our driving future, regardless of how smart and advanced our cars and roadways become.

If such ideas are incorporated into driver training programs, discussions about courtesy and aggressive driving will be better informed and more productive; and, hopefully, life for drivers in Hawaii will become much easier and traffic much less congested.