First rule: don't start shit in LA traffic. Just don't. People are all trying to get somewhere, and it's likely they're already late or otherwise struggling in some distinct corner of their lives.
I started telling strangers about their brake lights being out around a decade ago. I had just finished a three-year lease in Glendale, where a basic jaunt to the store could quickly turn into some shit out of Mad Max. It was swerve-or-be-swerved in those days; the otherwise sleepy LA burb had the steepest insurance rates in California and some of the highest in the country. You learned to dodge random obstacles and remain calm when infringed upon. If you didn't, you usually started to grind your teeth in your sleep or develop some other nervous tic. Those who came away from Glendale traffic culture without dings on their vehicles were, at the very least, forever changed in terms of their reflexes behind the wheel.
Since then, I've been on a karmic mission to return kindness to our dotted lanes, one random driver at a time.
Look, cops can pull you over for any little thing. And they will. You're on the side of the road, you dig out your registration and proof of insurance, and before you know it you've revealed your precious horde of stolen spoons and napkins from Wendy's that you spent years diligently stashing away. The shame is real.
Let's go over some of the basics on how to let your fellow driver improve their safety and reduce run-ins with Johnny Law.
This is a strict rule, for the safety of yourself and those around you. There might be the odd traffic jam in which you're able to deliver your message, stuck behind a line of trucks rubbernecking around a wreck. Beyond the physical risks, the freeway folk who are delayed are more likely to be emotionally combative. Stick to local streets with lots of lights and stop signs, ideally when traffic has ebbed and everyone is puttering along at a reasonable pace.
Consider the Whip:
Do you drive an asshole car? If so, do not engage. Me, I roll in an old Toyota Camry with rust damage. It's a dad machine. It exudes passivity and hapless vibes. Look at this fucking thing, I'm stuck with it, let's put on some B-52's and eat some Combos.
Does the other car look menacing? Like, does it have racing stripes and a snowboard for a spoiler? Do the side panels shudder to rhythmic bursts of EDM at 8 am in the morning? Do not engage.
One time I hailed a Mustang with black-tinted windows, and the gent who rolled his window down had a teardrop tattoo. He was nice about the news, but I don't do tints anymore. If your car is chill and the other car seems friendly, all systems go.
Drop Your Glass:
Roll your window down. This creates an open channel on your end, which helps let the other driver know that you may need to speak to them.
Bid Them Howdy-Do:
I have big hands, so I like to use a calm, open-palmed wave like I'm gesturing to an old acquaintance. Make sure to have at least a minimal smile so you don't appear to be a threat. Uplift the eyebrows so the other driver has a sense that you may have a question.
Signals and Charades:
As a society, our use of archaic action phrases versus practical movements is nothing short of adorable. We no longer "hang up" phones, but cannot say that we are "buttoned off" when someone hangs up on us. Anyway, take your hand and mime the old "rolling-down-a-window" circular crank motion so you can speak to your fellow driver. Most of the time they will miraculously still know what this means. And yes, you have also paid tribute to Buster Keaton for the day.
Shape your hand like a talking clam and chomp the jaws together. This motion lets them know that you're trying to say something. If they don't immediately take the hint, you can also possibly mouth the words "Need to Talk to You" while gesturing from yourself to them with the other hand. By this point, the other party usually rolls their window down, smiles and ignores you, or gives you a stunning glare.
Use Your NPR Voice:
When the other window cracks or comes down, shoot over a "Hey! Your Brake Light is Out," in an even, pleasant tone. If it's noisy and you do need to speak up, I recommend using a voice that I call the "Rowdy Rick Steves," which is as bright and smooth as root beer with Jameson in the bottom.
Most of the time the other party will be pleasantly surprised, their brow going from furrowed to uplifted. There may be some thanks, they might ask which side is out, you exchange a nice little wave and both cruise onto a better day as the light turns green.
If the traffic light doesn't immediately change and things don't flow like the end of a gum commercial, say "Yes sir" or "Yes ma'am," roll your window back up and fiddle with your radio or phone. Whatever you do, do not keep looking at them. You've already done the hand-clam, for God's sake.
One of my favorite parts of Scott McCloud's masterpiece Understanding Comics is a brief moment in which he addresses the concept of cars as an exoskeleton. Shaw points out the representation of a vehicle as an extension of the self and how drivers tend to say "he hit me" instead of "he hit my car" when in an accident.
In this sense, we must always bear in mind the vulnerability of our fellow drivers; we all retain a private function with our respective vehicles. The modern car is its own life pod. Driver A uses the machine for work and it smells like ancient hot dog farts. Driver B might keep it pristine, vacuuming the cabin every Sunday afternoon. Driver C uses it as a changing room and phone booth to escape office life, her back seat full of old salad containers and yoga pants waiting to be washed. Given the nature of its repetition, mobility and sense of urgency, this space is always disposable and yet somehow more familiar than home.
When we speak between these spaces, it must be with kindness.
You could be heading to work or just hunting for a Starbucks to poop in. No matter your destination, at some point you're going to find yourself rolling up behind a car, truck, or jeep with only one red brake light staring back at you. The red cyclops must be slain and we can do this if we work together.
Lee Keeler is a writer and educator living in Northeast Los Angeles.