The steering wheel wave. A study.

Sometimes we ramble.
When that happens, what was supposed to be a quick Scout entry gets filed away as a blog post and saved for another day. This is one of those long-winded asides that blends fleeting thoughts and borderline incoherent explanations into a few extra paragraphs. We’re talking rural steering wheel wave here.


Turning sixteen is a big deal.

The argument can be made that in small town USA, it’s even more important. Securing that 3.5” piece of plastic was more than a signal of legal driving status and that those white-knuckled attempts at parallel parking were totally worth it. It granted you the power to cruise (do 16-year-olds still cruise?).

That loop up and down your hometown’s — or neighboring town’s for the more adventurous — main drag may have appeared aimless, but we all recognize the freedom and rite of passage it represented.

Growing up in southeast Missouri was no different than countless other Midwest towns in this regard. We all had that loop that began and ended in the equivalent of the Walmart parking lot. Another similarity existed there that I want to explore today: the wave.


The Wave.

We learned it from our parents, or more often than not, our grandfather. Whether it was making our 50th pass on Main Street or meeting an oncoming tractor on a backroad gravel, the steering wheel wave was, and remains, a simple move that binds a huge swath of folks.

Jeep people have their own trademarked movement. Motorcyclists boast their brand of the basic nod or biker wave. For everyone else in the Midwest, the one or two-finger ‘hi’ sign is the gesture of choice. There’s plenty of speculation to the origin, but this write up in Texas Monthly (they even put this stuff in their bank commercials) does a fine job generalizing the ‘why’:

“The hi sign is strictly a highway courtesy, an automotive gesture developed for the modern age. A person on horse or on foot raises his whole hand, but the demands of travel on wheels dictate a specialized wave. Body language for “howdy,” the hi sign is the simplest of waves, merely the raising of the forefinger of the driving hand, which does not budge from its draped position across the top of the steering wheel, the attitude struck by most long-distance or travel-wise drivers. (The other arm is out the window or on the armrest, depending on the weather and your driving speed.) Giving the hi sign also provides an opportunity to stretch a cramped hand, thus accomplishing two purposes at once. It wastes no energy; it is a model of efficiency, like all nonessential movements by country folks who must save their labor for the land. But be alert. The hi sign is brief, often lasting only a second.”
– Anne Dingus

Anne is right on. I agree with her observations on reliance and efficiency but would like to add a little color to the picture. The single hand in its “draped position” exists because we are/were one-handed drivers. With a left on the wheel, our right hand was busy flipping through CD books, shifting gears, or holding a coffee, Coke or Busch Light depending on the time of day and proximity to the city limits. Our steering wheels were worn in one spot from this posture and the wave was as practiced and unvaried.


The wave at work.

Before picking up roots (in Dexter, MO) and chasing a degree, I never thought about the wave. It’s just one of those things you do while navigating life in the Bootheel. It’s still the same if you visit Bernie or New Madrid or Van Buren. However, in the past few weeks images and rituals from my youth have played around in the back of my mind, including the wave. So, since Sunday, I’ve been conducting a highly scientific social experiment.

While driving in from Jackson to Downtown Cape Girardeau every morning, I wave at people, implementing the seasoned one-finger wave of my early driving days. I wave on Broadway and on William, up Sprigg and down East Main. The results: no one waves back. In fact, one guy threw up his hands in what appeared to be outrage. I swear it was just my index finger. I’m sure everyone just has their eyes on the road, but one wave couldn’t hurt, right?

Then Tuesday happened. At 9:30 a.m. I needed to run a quick errand (full disclosure, I was checking one of my morel spots) and continued my little investigation on the way out of town. By the way, what are so many people doing out driving around in the middle of the workday? Social experiments and morel hunting, probably. Anyway.

The blank stares and no-waves were racking up until I turned onto County Road 465. Then, bam. The first truck I meet results in an unsolicited wave. Less than a mile later, another. Maybe it was because the windows were down and it was 65 degrees out. Maybe it was the fresh cup of coffee, the silence or just being on a gravel road when I should have been at my desk, but it felt good.

Maybe the wave is not just a rural thing, but that your head can be clearer and your sight a little longer on roads without a centerline. Maybe it’s just the courtesy of another human saying, “I see you.”

You can ask any science teacher I ever had, I never came up with the right answers. And I don’t have one to wrap up this rambling exploration of lifting a finger.

So here’s where my experiment ends and your participation comes in. Sure, the tradition may simply be rooted in pastoral upbringing, but so are most of us and why overthink a good thing? On your way to lunch today — on your way home, navigating the Schnucks parking lot, after soccer practice — throw up the wave. At the very least, it acknowledges someone else’s presence and in a way cheers them along. And it just feels good.

See ya out there.