At this time of year everything is frantic, with the deadline of jobs to be done before Santa does his rounds. It's the season of goodwill and we wish all around us a merry Christmas - until we get behind the wheel, and then some of us change. Goodwill stops when the car door shuts and self-interest takes the wheel.
There's a kind of continuum of driver behaviour that moves from courteous defensive driving, through assertive to aggressive to ultimately reckless driving and road rage.
The law impacts negatively from the aggressive end of the spectrum but the mix of courteous, defensive and assertive driving is what will get you home.
There is a range of views about what defensive, assertive and aggressive driving means.
Defensive driving has long been the benchmark of the competent driver. It's defined as "Driving to save lives, time and money, in spite of the conditions around you and the actions of others", or "Driving as if everyone else on the road is drunk".
Assertive driving could be identified as, "Knowing the road rules and positively taking your driving place within those rules".
Aggressive driving is defined by Wikipedia as, "The use of a motor vehicle in a deliberate and aggressive manner that is likely to endanger life by increasing the risk of collision. This behaviour is usually motivated by impatience, annoyance, hostility, or an attempt to save time."
You know it when you see it and it's prosecuted as careless, dangerous or reckless driving.
What seems to be lost in the definitions is how the attitude of the driver affects others on the road.
Aggressive driving provokes aggression.
Thinking about others on the road, being mindful of how they might express their needs, and being prepared to safely accommodate those needs and actions calms us down in the driving task. That's road courtesy.
The courteous approach is seen as the unwritten rules of the road - a widely accepted driving etiquette of a few habits and conventions that cheer up those around us, prevent other drivers from seeing red and generally create a more stress-free relationship with car travel.
Probably the most common frustration with congested roads is being able to get in. There is a convention of "merging like a zip" when moving from two lanes to one that many of us need to learn around some of our intersections.
Appropriate merging makes the intersection work better as well. Being mindful of those wanting to enter queuing traffic from side roads is also part of courteous driving.
The caveat to wanting to get into a traffic queue is indicating what you want to do. That's about being clear about those intentions before you do it so others can act accordingly.
Using your indicators before you turn, pull out or change lanes is just plain courteous behaviour that applies to cyclists as well.
Letting people in and appropriately indicating also implies that we travel at a respectful distance.
Too close and you're tailgating - and drivers hate tailgaters.
Too long a distance in a queue could mean other drivers spy a gap and an unsafe manoeuvre may result.
Patience is a virtue that overflows into courtesy. This frame of mind acknowledges that "traffic is always slow in rush hour"; "the traffic-light phasing will never suit my sense of timing"; and that "what is happening on the road is simply out of my control - unless I become the source of that disruption". Such acceptance can be helpful when you are driving.
Getting angry will not make a difference.
Every so often, though, a fellow driver does a kindness to you, so saying "thank you" will make their day. It's not always easy but a quick wave out the window indicates that you acknowledge and appreciate the thoughtfulness of others.
Driving is much more than the skills it takes to move a car from one place to another. Small acts of courtesy can make a difference to our enjoyment of driving.
• John Williamson is chairman of Roadsafe Northland and Northland Road Safety Trust, a former national councillor for NZ Automobile Association and former Whangārei District Council member.