A salute to the language of the road. Published in Medium
The car sighed a little as it reached the crest of the hill. I could see the road stretch to the horizon like an endless black ribbon unfurling across the land. It had been hours since I had seen another car, but then in the distance, I saw a van headed my way. As it approached, I raised my finger from the steering wheel in the time-honoured salute among road trippers. What was the response? Nothing. Left me hanging. “Rude buzzard,” I said to soothe my hurt ego.
Then it happened again. And again. And again. What the . . .?
A road trip is an iconic form of travel. More than a way to get from A to B, it symbolises the essence of travel. It is freedom. It is adventure. It is danger. As a nomad it is a way of life.
This road trip is one of the most iconic in the world, travelling from one side of Australia to the other, across the Nullarbor Plain. It takes days, not hours, to cover the near 1500 kilometres from Ceduna to Esperance. The trip crosses three time zones and includes the longest stretch of straight road in the world, the famous 90 Mile Straight (176 kilometres).
Hand gestures are part of every culture’s communication and Australian road culture is no different. The driver salute, the raising of one or two fingers from the driving wheel to passing vehicles on isolated roads, is an essential part of the culture of the open road. Anthropologist Dr Adrian Peace has labelled it the ‘phatic finger’. It embodies the camaraderie among drivers. It is both a sign of mutual respect and an unspoken understanding that you’re in this together.
It is borne from an understanding that you may depend on fellow roadsters to literally save your life in isolated regions or places of extreme weathers.
Films like Thelma and Louise, Wolf Creek and Easy Rider provide us with glimpses into what the road might bring us. Yet we head out anyway. We are drawn to the adventure. But we need to know we have our fellowship of travellers with us. I first travelled the outback roads of Australia in the 1980s when everyone gave the finger of respect. Even in the 1990s the finger was strong, but in the intervening years the salute feels forgotten.
So, on this recent trip, as an essential traveler in the pandemic, when my fellow roadsters left me hanging, I grew concerned about this slip in solidarity and wondered how bad the situation had become.
There’s not a whole lot to do on the Nullarbor, so I kept a tally and the results surprised and disturbed me.
I initiated a salute with every vehicle that passed, except road trains and motorbikes, for four hours. In total 40 vehicles passed, including caravans, campervans, SVUs and small cars. Sadly 70 per cent of my fellow roadsters didn’t wave back. That’s a lot of rejection to deal with on a lonely road.
The wavers and non-wavers were equally distributed across vehicle types in so far as campervans, SVUs and small cars were just as likely to wave as not to wave. The difference lay elsewhere.
The non-wavers were 39 percent men and 61 percent women. Clearly there is a gender divide in the culture of the finger, but there’s more.
The wavers were 100 percent men. Not one woman waved back, and I’m a woman. Where’s the sisterhood in that?
Obviously, it’s time for a reminder of the importance of the outback wave. Like all language it has purpose, even if the language is a non-verbal gesture. The outback finger is more than a ‘hello’ it denotes solidarity and serves as a reminder of our vulnerability on isolated roads.
Perhaps faith in mobile phones has created the indifference to the fellowship of the road. Or maybe it’s because more people travel more now than twenty years ago and that familiarity with the road has bred contempt. But phones don’t work in the outback and that level of contempt is akin to the worst kind of hubris that usually results in a sticky end.
In 2018 the ABC reported how six people died on outback roads within two weeks due to a combination of car break downs, no mobile phone coverage and wandering away from the car. Then there’s the animal collisions. According to statistics from Budget Direct Insurance, between 2001–2005 there were 6423 collisions or swerves involving kangaroos, resulting in more than 2000 injuries and 25 fatalities of people on Australian roads. Most of these occur in rural or remote areas.
In these traumatic situations it is not your mobile phone, or emergency services that will come to your aid, but your comrade divers. The generosity and kindness of strangers of the road will be your lifeline, except they aren’t strangers because you are allies of the road. When you waved at passing drivers you weren’t waving at one car, or one driver, but to all who take on the outback roads against the odds.
So, I implore you, my fellow roadsters to raise your finger, salute in solidarity of the road warriors. Let me know we are shoulder to shoulder in times of danger. In return I pledge to always give you the finger, help in times of need and keep the silent language of the road alive.