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Turn Signals in traffic – ancient technology or »pandora’s box« in development departments?

by Miha Ernstschneider STS

I had an amazing opportunity to meet a team of young motorcyclist that devoted their lives to turn signals on motorcycles. What is so special about the turn signals on motorcycles or on vehicles in general that make it worth the devotion, time and effort spent? Well, the team says it’s the challenge, drive for innovation and to make the road a better, safer and more comfortable place for the riders.

To fully understand the challenge, let me try to explain how it all started, how turn signals came to become a part of reality, the development through history, the legislative part, the benefits and the issues and as the last part, the perfect solution for motorcycles and their turn-signals usage.

It’s always nice to start with something funny – let me try

You sure have heard of Blinker Fluid – a magical liquid that allows your turn signal to blink. Well, I’m sure most of us know the Blinker Fluid is only a funny and a sarcastic remark for those who don’t have a clue about cars or motorcycles or are not aware of other participants on the road they are sharing the road with. Well, there certainly are people that just don’t care what others think since their own presence on the road is the only thing they care about.



I have another one for you – have you ever seen an add on e-bay from someone selling the BMW turn signal lever? Most of the time, the levers are offered as new, in perfect condition, barely used and often in a bundle with Blinker Fluid. Funny how people get creative, isn’t it?





To be honest, there should be a lot more offers on E-Bay also for drivers that drive a car from other manufacturers, since it is not the brand of the vehicle that defines the inability to use turn signals but it is us, the most advanced animal species on the planet Earth – Humans.



I wouldn’t say the turn-signal topic is boring at all. Quite the opposite, I had a laugh the other day, watching an older man yelling at a much younger guy to use his head not only to grow hair on it after he made some »stunts« on the road without indicating his intention. I also often find myself frustrated, when drivers act like they are alone on the road and when they start to overtake while I am already overtaking them or waiting to join onto the road and then they make a turn, again without a turn signal… And I’m sure at one point, I was also the one who got the unflattering attention, just because I did not take the effort to look twice, to indicate my intentions and to be honest, I made some stupid things myself. Boring – not at all… since there were a lot of situations, where I laughed, where I yelled, where I was angry… All because of a simple turn signal. Do you see where I am going?



Simple things like using turn signals affect our emotions on a daily basis and let’s face it, it happens often that we correlate the turn signal use with negative feelings rather than the positive ones – »That’s the way it is!«, someone might say, but if it affects us so much, why are we neglecting this simple small lights on a daily basis and why the turn signal misuse threatens us so much?


Let’s take a step further and see how the »evolution« of turn signals and turn signal usage started to become standard equipment on vehicles and mandatory to use in traffic by law. In order not to make this blog boring, I will list the facts as short as possible…



– Before 1914, there were only hand signals used to indicate a change in the direction of a vehicle
– Florence Lawrence (Canadian) invented a turn indicator for cars in about 1914.
– The device was called an “auto signalling arm” and it was attached to the car’s rear fender. When the driver pressed a button an electrically operated arm raised a sign to indicate the direction of the turn.
– Florence Lawrence did not, however, correctly patent her invention.
– In 1929 Oscar J. Simler (American) invented and patented a turn indicator.
– In 1935 a company in the United States invented a flashing turn indicator.
– A Buick was the first production car to be fitted with an electrical turn indicator in 1938.
– By 1940, Buick added the self-cancelling mechanism attached to the steering column
– In 1965, Ford Factory fitted the sequential rear turn signals on Thunderbirds, soon followed by Mercury Cougars (1968-1970), Shelby Mustangs (1968-1970), and 1969 Chrysler Imperials.
– 2017 – Well, nowadays we are basically using the same basic technology for turn signals developed in 1940 – a 77-year-old technology!!!



Why did the progress in development stop if we still, after 77 years, have so much emotional impact from simple turn signals on our minds and feelings? Here are some more facts that might help you better understand the »issues« the industry is having:


FUN FACTS 2 (Summarised from

– Costly Mechanism: The mechanical self-cancel assembly is a high cost, labour intensive mechanism to assemble with many delicate and fragile parts to assemble. It also takes up a good deal of valuable space within the steering column.
– Turn Signal Left On: We’ve all seen it. We’ve all done it. A car going down the road with an erroneous, unsafe turn signal that is left on because the mechanism failed to shut it off automatically. The driver is unaware that the turn signal is on and may drive for miles with it left on.
– Premature Shut Off: A turn signal that trips off before the turn is even made because of a particular wiggle of the steering wheel. As drivers, if we recognize that it shut off, we simply re-activate it, but in reality it is a nuisance and could in fact present a dangerous situation.
– Noise: The relentless “tick-tock” noise that is there to remind us that this is an imperfect system and is likely to need our attention. To the driver, it is ever-present in the subconscious and is but one more potential driving distraction. The noise is there to help, but is not likely audible if the stereo is up or the windows are down.
– Durability & Reliability: The sensitive mechanism also has to be robustly designed to withstand potentially severe user’s abuse. There are numerous, delicate, lubricated parts in this mechanism and over the long term, the assembly can become sloppy, wear out or break, depending on severity of use. Items like flasher modules are likely to fail at some time.

I had now covered a lot of turn signal issues, facts and experiences in connection to cars, trucks… What about motorcycles?

Motorcycles are also equipped with turn signals and riders will know that to operate the turn-signal switch is very easy but the switch itself is even dumber than the one we use in cars. Since motorcycles don’t have a steering wheel and the car system for automatic turn signal cancellation can’t be adapted to the motorcycles, the industries’ solution was as simple as it can get – leave the cancelling part to the rider and let it become the riders’ responsibility.


Thank you motorcycle industry, don’t even bother to make my ride safer or to invest time in inventing a reliable self-cancelling turn-signal system, worthy of its name.

At this point, I have to admit that things aren’t so black and white. The industry was and still is, searching for a solution for this particular issue. The first attempts to develop a self-cancelling solution on motorcycles date back over 40, maybe even 50 years ago. But why, after 50 years, there still isn’t a standard solution that is integrated on all motorcycles from the factory? I’m sure that your first guess is that »here come the FUN FACTS 3 part« and you are definitely right. Soon, very soon… 🙂

But more about it in our next blog – Turn signals, part 2