The Lost Art of the Turn Signal

Over the last several years, I’ve observed a real decrease in the use of turn signals. This is to some extent a geographical phenomenon–some areas are much worse than others–but the general trend seems to be nationwide.

Indeed, the failure to use turn signals has reached such levels that it has to be significantly impacting the efficiency of traffic flow, as well as safety.

It’s tempting to put this down to an outbreak of narcissism so extreme that many people act as if they consider themselves to be the only conscious beings in the world. But even if one thought that all the other drivers were merely cleverly-programmed robots, wouldn’t it still be a good idea to let those robots know that you’re going to make a turn? Is there a strong form of solipsism on the loose?

This may sound like a trivial issue, but I don’t think it is. How can we have a society if we are not–literally–willing to lift a finger for each other?

18 thoughts on “The Lost Art of the Turn Signal”

  1. A traffic system is a perfect example of a decentralized information system in which millions of individual decision-makers use local information and global rules to create highly functional system without any centralized micromanagement.

    A lot of physicist are fascinated by traffic systems and behavior. Economist should be too because a free-market economy works largely same way. One merely replaces general business law and accounting for traffic law and businesses/ consumers for drivers.

    How can we have a society if we are not–literally–willing to lift a finger for each other?

    Good point. There was a researcher (whose name I cannot remember) who found a correlation between voluntary adherence to traffic laws and local economic development. Apparently, a culture that produces individuals who cannot spontaneously cooperate to form an efficient traffic system also cannot cooperate enough to make a functioning economy.

    I think a lot of people in the developed world don’t signal or otherwise obey traffic laws because they have difficulty conceiving of society as a collection of equals who follow mutually agreed on rules. For these people, all human interaction occurs within a hierarchy and an individual either bows to the hierarchy or they do not. Violating rules of the road makes them feel powerful and independent.

    Spontaneous cooperation between anonymous peers is the functional heart of a prosperous and free society. The willingness of individuals to cooperate on the road indicates their willingness to cooperate in other parts of life.

  2. Well I’ve noticed that when one needs to get over in order to make a turn or get to an off ramp, there are plenty of people who despite your turn signal will not let you in. At highway speeds, one simply has to take their foot off the gas for a few seconds and enough of a gap will open to let another car over. What is the big deal? Don’t even get me started on those passive-aggressive folks who speed up in order to prevent you from changing lanes.

  3. Decreased civility in driving is supported by experience, anecdote and research.

    I think it is because too many people are not taught that there is a civic sphere, or a world of grownups, or whatever, where everything in not always about my immediate gratification. Most people do get this. But if enough do not, it can foul up radically decentralized systems, like highway traffic.

  4. I think that we are starting to see some physical manifestations of the narcissism that has been creeping into the culture since the late 50s.

    But there are other mechanisms at work, too:

    1. The “educators” who run many parts of the system sneer at teaching good citizenship, resulting in fewer good citizens. As Lex said, it only takes a few uneducated idiots to turn a near-capacity road system into a parking lot.

    2. Shannon’s articulate intellectuals see little reason to obey the rules – Ward Churchill is a good example of that. With consequences for not obeying rules either so long in coming or so miniscule, behavior suffers in a delayed feedback loop. In our society, we have more and more “educated” people who do nothing but manipulate words all day, and so buy into the “rules are not important” meme. It seeps into their driving. And I have yet to see a cop ticket for failure to signal unless other infractions were involved, too.

    3. Related to this, fewer people work with their hands. Physical labor, especially with heavy machinery, breeds respect for it and courtesy to those operating it.

    4. A large number of immigrants on the roads were not brought up with the same respect for machinery and for other drivers as were many native-born Americans. I live in a largely Chinese social circle, and I can say, based on an N of about 50, that ABCs are far better drivers than FOBs.

    5. Illegal immigrants are even worse drivers than legal ones, and there are millions on the road.

    6. More Americans live in big cities than ever before. Many of them are weekend-only drivers with limited experience. Practice makes perfect.

    7. Many states in the Northeast have very poor driver education programs. If you don’t know the rules of the road, not only can’t you follow them, you can’t predict what others are going to do in an emergency. For years Rhode Island held the lowest spot on the GMAC survey, until they put in more behavioral questions (and NY predictably took the crown). I know several transplants into RI who agree that the people there do not know the rules of the road. MA is almost as bad (there is a reason that other Yankees call MA drivers “Massholes”). I know several well-educated MA residents who failed their first written test for their PA license when moving there. That highlights another big difference – in PA you have to retake the exam when you move there (no matter what your age); in CT, MA, and RI, an out-of-state driver does not have to retake the exam. Those states are not as serious about enforcing road safety.

    8. Although I have argued that cell-phone use does not appreciably contribute to accidents (and based on accident figures before and after the widespread use of cellphones, I think I’m right) – it does contribute to not having a free hand to work the turn signal.

    9. There is a negative feedback loop where people get used to sloppy driving and it makes their own driving sloppier. The marginal cases who would have seen proper signaling in years past, and felt guilty enough to get their act together, now see more bad examples than good.

  5. I will second the observation about illegals being one of the worst road hazards out there. I live in Denver, there are tons of illegals here. First, the maintenance and upkeep of their vehicles are atrocious, one headlight, no brake lights, bald tires etc. Often they have no command of their vehicles’ wildly careening down the highway. Expired registration tags. I guess cops don’t dare pull over anyone hispanic looking for expired tags, but I constantly see cars with tags that have been expired 6-9 months.

    Finally, America has done a great job of educating kids that you don’t litter. Aparently in Mexico they never had the commercial with the crying Indian, beccause I see illegals throwning wrappers, cans etc out of their moving vehicles on a daily basis.

  6. I can but add stuff from my old age–experience. When cars first took to the roads, they drove almost only at night. Hand signals used. then, people for a variety of reasons bean to drive when it was dark out.Companies made turn signals available at an extra price–want one, pay for it. Now it comes automatically with the car and so why bother since you know where you are going, right? Civility? neck and neck with cell phone use. I have a call. My call and your problem.

    There prob ably is something going on that accounts for this because as noted it seems an increasing problem or issue. When I blow the horn at a car making a tun without giving a signal, I get a strange look that says: Why are you honking? I have not done anything wrong.

  7. Is there any actual evidence that turn signal used is decreasing over time? If so, is there any reason to attribute actual traffic problems (accidents, less efficient roads, etc) to reduced signaling? In other words: Is this a problem or an irritant?

  8. Cell phones. If you’ve already given up one hand to jabber with, getting to the turn signal lever is not very convenient, and you’re probably not exactly “in the moment” anyway.

    I usually let people cut in front of me to turn, merge, and change lanes, but am likely to refuse to do so if the other driver is not using a turn signal. Performing a favor is one thing; conceding a right is another.

  9. What John Jay said.

    I have also noticed a big increase in jaywalking and reckless and aggressive bicyclists.

  10. Mexican immigrants are going to be a problem. The mayor of Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, explained to me that because cars cost so little and insurance so much, when there is a collision Mexicans frequently walk away from their vehicle and leave it to the city to tow away and dispose of. Further, he said that only about a quarter of their roads were paved so that lanes became ill defined resulting in possession being 9/10 of the right of way. Unpaved streets were also their greatest source of air pollution.

  11. I lived – and drove – in Athens for two and a half years, during which I was repeatedly told that during the course of a single year, 50% of the cars registered on base (driven by American service personnel or their dependents) could expect to be in an accident. So in the course of two years… well, do the math. I excaped unscathed, however; someone else must have had my accident and theirs, too.

    I will never forget the time when car needed some small repair, and my Greek next-door neighbor said he would lead me to his garage. He drove ahead in his car, but his English wife rode as a passanger in mine, in case I got lost. The first time I used my turn indicator at a corner, she burst out laughing and said it had been so long since she saw one used, she had practically forgotten there was such a thing!

    When I left Greece, we took the car ferry to Italy, where I made the happy discovery that altough Italians drove very fast on the highway… they did use their turn indicators relatively faithfully.

  12. At the risk of offending some of the older folks here, I forgot one: the clueless, possibly senile geriatric who is hard of hearing, and so can’t hear the “click, click, click” of the signal, and so rides 5 miles an hour below the speed limit for 50 miles down the highway with his or her left signal on, then gets off the highway on a right hand exit, forgetting to signal to the right. As he or she turns right, the left-hand signal is still on.

    That sound they vaugely hear as they exit the highway is me or someone like me, in the car behind, cussing a blue streak loud enough to hear through two closed car windows and 500 feet of space.

    As the population ages, we are going to see more and more of that.

  13. “As the population ages, we are going to see more and more of that.”

    Robot cars. Watch.

    Recall the scene in Count Zero, where they get into the armored robot limousinse — “home, Ahmed”!

    Between age and multitasking the demand will become overwhelming.

  14. Two comments..

    1. Someone above mentioned “power”. That plays a role. If I choose not to use my turn signals, and the other guy does, I win. I know what he’s going to do, but he doesn’t know what I’m going to do. I’m powerful in that confrontation.

    2. Drivers of large trucks used to be professionals. They’d use turn signals to change lanes and at other appropriate times. Seems like recently, many semi drivers just do their own thing. When a driver of a multi-ton vehicle ignores signaling, the Mini-Cooper (or, Escalade) driver is at a disadvantage, so to speak.

  15. For many drivers, rush hour driving is a test. Each challenge to one’s position in the pecking order that evolves each morn and evening is a test of personal authority, a test of the cosmic order of the universe, and a test of manhood. These drivers, and they constitute the majority, cannot abide line jumpers because line jumping is morally wrong. Armed with the certitude that only morals can provide they will guard that one or two car lengths that separate their front bumper from the car in front, cutting off all interlopers, cursing them as geriatric fools, unwashed Mexicans, women drivers or teenagers.

    People who use turn signals fall into two camps: the first use the turn signal as a way of asking permission to enter a lane in which some one else claims right-of-way. The second camp believes using the turn signal confers an entitlement to changing lane and cancels out any opposing driver’s claim to right-of-way. Most people who used to signal now realize that the act of signaling causes other drivers to take counter measures to prevent the lane change. Therefore they have discovered lane changing is safer and quicker if it is done without signalling.

  16. “It’s tempting to put this down to an outbreak of narcissism so extreme that many people act as if they consider themselves to be the only conscious beings in the world.”

    Well, it’s more like – intelligence is finite, there are just more people.

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