Around the poker table, the last thing you want is to let anyone know how you’ll play your hand. On the road, it’s just the opposite: Everyone around you should get fair warning of your intentions.
If only drivers followed that practice rigorously. For one thing, there might be less fist-shaking by drivers and bicyclists cut off by thoughtless lane-changers. And fewer tickets as well.
Last year, the New York State Police issued 15,127 tickets for violations of the state’s section 1163 law, including failure to signal, not signaling at least 100 feet before making a turn or misusing a signal. It’s no small matter: New York will also award you two points on your driver’s license.
Drivers whose livelihood entails hustling eighteen-wheelers on the highway regularly cite the lack of turn-signal discipline as a pet peeve.
“Please use your turn signals; that is the only way that we know what you are going to do,” a trucker from Michigan told The Times in 2017.
A trucker from Ohio pleaded, “B-L-I-N-K-E-R! Please please please. The blinker is the most powerful tool on the road. Not enough drivers use it. If and when it is used properly, it can save lives and avoid accidents!”
No wonder truckers are irritated. A 2012 Society of Automotive Engineers study based on observing the actions of 12,000 drivers on public roads found that nearly half neglected to signal before making a lane change.
The benefits of signaling are obvious, and the simple finger flip that turns them on takes a fraction of the effort of another common automotive no-no: thumbing out a text message. Failure to signal is an inconsiderate act that makes the roads less safe, causing panic braking, sudden swerves and fender-benders or worse. The few seconds advance notice of an impending maneuver that a turn signal gives other drivers are often enough to avoid such mayhem.
According to the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research, an affiliate of the State University of New York, in 2018 there were 542 crashes in the state where turn signal violations were a contributing factor.
So what’s the problem here? Why don’t many drivers take this simple safety precaution? When asked about their bad habits in a national study, their explanations seemed confounding.
The study by Response Insurance of Meriden, Conn., found that 42 percent of drivers claimed they didn’t have enough time to signal before turning. Nearly a quarter of drivers blamed laziness, while 17 percent said they skipped signaling because they were apt to forget to cancel the blinkers. Worth noting: Men admitted that they were more likely, by 62 percent to 53 percent, to change lanes without signaling.
Is it that some drivers just don’t care about the other guy? If that’s the case, consider this: There is evidence that the act of signaling provides a cognitive benefit to the driver.
“When you turn on the turn signal, you’re turning on your brain,” said Chris Kaufmann, a driving school instructor who specializes in teaching people who drive V.I.P.s.
Mr. Kaufmann, a former Los Angeles Metro police officer who also conducts firearms training, which he said demands a level of focus and concentration similar to safe driving, equates the act of clicking the blinkers to declaring intentions to yourself.
“It’s the start of a checklist to look left, look right, signal, look left, look right,” he said in a telephone interview. That level of mindfulness, Mr. Kaufmann said, can reduce the possibility of an unintentional gaffe — what could be considered an honest mistake that may have serious consequences.
So not only do the blinking lights alert other drivers, but the touch on the turn signal stalk also tells the driver to prepare for the unexpected — for example, a car suddenly squeezing into the gap where you planned to merge.
Turn-signal nirvana may not arrive until autonomous cars do, when drivers have been removed from the decisions. Experts at companies developing self-driving technology said that the capacity to trigger the appropriate signals when turning or changing lanes would be part of any fully autonomous driving package. The same applies to responding to the turn signals of other cars. Laziness will not be a factor.
The transition to an autonomous future has already begun, and more fully autonomous cars will eventually be sharing the road with less-precise human drivers. The ones, you know, who don’t signal.
Would autonomous vehicles equipped with artificial intelligence and hyper-speed computers be able to anticipate the moves of those drivers? How will an autonomous car following all of the rules interact with cars that follow only some?
That’s tough to say, as predicting the actions of human drivers is one of the greatest challenges in computer science. The outlook for a zero-collision future is uncertain so long as there’s a mix of cars on the road driven by people who think they have legitimate reasons for not doing the right thing and cars that are programmed with no excuses.
Smarter Driving is a new series all about how to buy, own, drive and maintain your car better. Have something you’d like us to cover? Reach out to Smarter Driving’s editor, James Schembari, at firstname.lastname@example.org.