"The wave of death": A small act of politeness can be responsible for the death of pedestrians.


One of the most dangerous things most of us will do this year is sit behind a steering wheel.

We’ll put our key in the ignition, and for as long as we’re driving a machine weighing more than one and a half tonnes, we’ll make hundreds of little decisions – some of them good, some of them bad.

While we know the biggest killer on our roads is speeding, followed by drink driving, not wearing seat belts, fatigue and distraction (phones for example), there is a new question around the danger of politeness.

Colloquially dubbed the ‘Wave of Death’, there is debate in the United States about whether waving a pedestrian or another driver across the road, potentially resulting in injury or a fatality, is a criminal act.

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Here’s an example.

In 1998, a man named Donald Cook was sued in South Jersey. A woman named Lori Miller was waiting to make a left turn in a congested area. Making eye contact with her, Cook motioned not once, but twice, that he would let her pass. Cook’s car, however, wasn’t the only issue. When Miller did take the turn, she collided with a third vehicle.

Both injured parties sued Cook, who argued in court that his gesture to pass did not mean he owed anyone a “duty of care”.

The court ultimately did not apportion Cook’s share of the blame, but acknowledged that the wave absolutely contributed to the crash.

So, can what might seem like a small act of politeness prove dangerous for pedestrians and other drivers?

Jerome Carslake, Manager of the National Road Safety Partnership Program, says as awful as it sounds, “courtesy could be a killer”.

“Someone will assume they’re doing something nice and novel,” Carslake explains, “but the safest thing would be to work with traffic, and let the other person make an informed decision.”


If someone is attempting to jaywalk for example, Carslake says that waving them through could be dangerous. There might be a lane with oncoming traffic that you haven’t adequately assessed. Or a cyclist.

“Everyone else is going to be operating by the rules… I’ve looked into how important it is to know the road rules. All of it is around certainty, there are certain principles around how things move, and if someone tries to break those assumptions or principles that might increase the risk for everyone else.”

Simply, it creates uncertainty.

But courtesy doesn’t always have to involve disregarding road rules.

“There’s another way to look at it,” Carslake says. “Courtesy doesn’t have to be about doing things wrong. It can be about being patient and aware, taking you time, being in the right mind space and focusing on the driving task.”

He adds, “It’s emotional drivers who are 10 times more likely to be involved in a crash.”

Pedestrian behaviour has, too, changed markedly over the last decade, which has contributed to accidents.

People are crossing roads with headphones in their ears, and as Carslake puts it, “in their own little world.”

“They might step out and all of a sudden, they haven’t been paying attention, and they’ve stepped in front of a tram.

“People are oblivious. They can’t hear horns because they’re wearing noise cancelling headphones.”

With the senses of sight and sound compromised, one is not able to survey their environment for potential risks, such as a red light or a fast moving vehicle.

While crossing roads might seem like a relatively safe undertaking, being blind to ones surroundings, or trusting a simple hand wave, could prove disastrous.