The mighty turn signal

Let’s consider the turn signal for motor vehicles.  When used properly, it helps keep a safe and friendly rhythm and flow to our traffic.  I once saw a bumper sticker that declared, “World peace starts with turn signals”. 

How did the flashing light become the signaling convention for turns and lane changes?  A “device for indicating the intended movements of vehicles” was patented in 1909.  It used mechanical images of a hand that popped out, pointing left or right, or held upright to indicate stoppage.  Buick introduced the blinking electric turn signal in 1938 as the “Flash-Way Directional Signal”.  Signaling requirements are now standard in all motor vehicle codes.

Like other useful standards and practices, turn signals evolved along with the activity they serve.  But imagine if turn signaling just started in the age of high tech electronics.  Instead of the blinking light, we might have elaborate rear end displays, in custom fonts selected by the driver.  “I’m thinking of turning right but I’m not sure yet” or “I’m turning left with some anxiety”. That might lead to tweets, animated ads, and the dreaded tail light blog.

But I hope that we stay with the simple blinking light.  Like all practical processes, it needs to be:

  • Necessary and useful.
  • Reliable, easy to use, and quickly understood.
  • And, oh yes—used consistently.

George M. Pomonik
Pomonik Consulting, Inc.
“Chaos Removal Services”SM

Copyright © George M. Pomonik, 2012. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “The mighty turn signal

  1. I must say that this is my favorite post so far. It is amazing how overcomplicating situations, devices, instructions, “innovations”, and so forth, can result in mass confusion….. or worse, a 50 car pile up! In some cases, the idea of going “back to basics” is more brilliant than the supposed advancements we encounter so frequently. Thank you for the insight and your clever delivery.

  2. George,

    I remember riding in my Father’s Morris Minor and, on his command, holding down the lever that extended the hand to signaled right or left turns. In the 1950s, the hand even lit up because new car models had a small wattage bulb that turned on when the hand was extended. Thanks for rekindling the memories!

    The consistency in meaning of a blinking light bulb, however, comes from more than the automobile industry. Somewhere in time, across many industries, a blinking light has come to represent “caution,” “be careful” and “You need to fix something, NOW!”

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