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Thursday, May 5, 2016

One good turn

Wednesday, April 3, 2002

I think I might have accidentally discovered why so many people don't use their turn signals while driving: They're afraid to.

As I approached a busy intersection on the way to work, I flicked on my turn signal as I changed lanes. After making the lane change, I reached up with my left pinky and shut off the blinker. Not only did I turn off my signal, but also I turned off my headlights and opened my trunk at the same time. The trunk could wait, but I had to get my headlights back on, so I frantically clutched at the lever. I was successful in reigniting the headlights, but I also managed to spray windshield solvent, turn the wipers on, and the back window started going up and down like a giant bologna slicer.

Fortunately, the wipers and window stopped on their own after a couple of cycles, and I could concentrate on driving again.

As my heart rate dropped below redline, I contemplated the situation. All other precautions being equal, if I had simply made the turn without bothering to use my turn signal, I would have been better off, but that's not the point.

After some initial tinkering around, early carmakers pretty much settled on a defacto standard. Most drivers had four major appendages, so they decided that the right arm would shift the transmission, the left arm would steer, the left foot operated the clutch, and the right leg was responsible for speed. Since "going" and "stopping" are mutually exclusive operations, they figured that one leg could handle both the gas and the brake.

This system worked well for many years. Then, as headlights improved, somebody thought it would be nice to be able to switch them between bright and dim. Since the left leg didn't have much to do and this was a simple "stomp-stomp" operation requiring very little dexterity, the dimmer switch was put on the floor near the left foot.

Soon, the rage was to put the shifting lever on the steering column, a design change that virtually eliminated a dating maneuver that young boys had practiced for years. This fact is only significant when you realize what came next: the turn signal lever.

It made no sense to put something like that anywhere except on the steering column, but they already had a big fat shifting lever sticking out the right side, so it had to go on the left.

The next major change was a significant increase in the popularity of automatic transmissions, making it easier on the right arm, requiring only a D or R selection. Simultaneously there was a corresponding decline in the use of the left leg, relegated to be of no use other than operating the headlight dimmer switch.

Still, it was a good system. The floor-mounted dimmer switch could become crusty at times, especially in winter, and require a couple of vigorous stomps to break it loose after not being used for a while. But that's not reason enough for some engineer to decide that it ought to be on the same lever as the turn signal. I don't think that was a good move. In the first place, if you have an automatic transmission your left leg is now virtually worthless until you get where you're going. Is it any wonder it's always falling asleep?

In addition, since the engineers have discovered that maybe the gearshift lever should be on the floor after all, they have gone overboard with all the things that they make these little levers do. If you pull it down it does one thing, up does something else, push it away, or pull it to. You can push in on the end, and some even have push buttons on the lever. All this limited only by the imagination of some engineer who was told by his boss that he couldn't have any knobs on the dashboard, because it might put out an eye in the event of a crash.

And each engineer has a different idea about which options should be on which lever, so the same operation that turns on the lights in my car turns on the windshield wipers in my truck.

Is there any wonder that people are afraid to touch that lever?