Written by our Chief Counsel, E. L. Eversman, a premier legal authority in the automotive arena, these articles address the most important legal issues affecting the automotive industry today.


Using Turn Signals: The Case for Civility and Accountability - 12/17/2003

<p class="content2">Strangely, the more powerful and technologically advanced our automobiles become, the less civil we are as drivers. Yes, I am referring to the "guess-what-I-am-about-to-do-next-because-I-have-no-intention-of-telling-you" technique which has become so commonplace in our driving habits. While I appreciate the faith so many drivers have exhibited in my ability to develop instantaneous psychic powers, I confess that this faith might be a teeny bit unwarranted. That being said, I ask a question that is not intended to be rhetorical. When did using turn signals become optional? <p class="content2"><strong>Use of turn signals required by law</strong> <p class="content2">U.S. state law and the applicable laws in Canada require motor vehicles, intended primarily for highway use, to be equipped with turn signal devices. The same requirements exist for braking indicators and headlights. Unlike drivers in Cairo, Egypt, most North American drivers unfailingly use their headlights at night. (This tactic is apparently due to the belief of some drivers in Egypt that the battery will last longer if the headlights are not used.) So, why are we often confronted with the driver immediately ahead mysteriously deciding to turn left (often at the very last second) without any advance notice to the on-coming stream of traffic or to the car behind? Why are cars randomly switching lanes in heavy traffic without using signals? More to the point, what is being done to remedy the problem? <p class="content2"><strong>Government programs</strong> <p class="content2">Grouped under the Intelligent Vehicle Initiative program (IVI), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has numerous completed and on-going research projects to study the causes of vehicle crashes and to propose solutions to prevent them. Together, IVI and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have four primary research goals. The first three relate to pin-pointing the factors contributing to driver distraction, how to measure the level of distraction, and developing technology to minimize the amount of distraction. In other words, these governmental agencies are studying the devices available for use in cars, like radios and cellular phones, to navigational systems and map finders, to computers, the internet, and any other thing you can think of, to tell us which ones are most distracting and what type of hands-free or voice-activated technology would allow us to better focus our attention on driving. The fourth goal is to promote social and behavioral programs to make us aware of the risks of distractions. None of these studies, however, address a need to discover the underlying cause for deliberate failure to comply with public traffic and safety laws. <p class="content2">Of collisions involving lane changing or merging into traffic, 9 out of 10 are caused by lane changing and only 1 out of 10 is caused by merging according to IVI studies. The program cites "driving task errors", including inattention, distraction, and failing to maintain a proper lookout, as accounting for the largest percentage of factors leading to lane change accidents. According to an NHTSA study conducted in 1996, "inattention" accounted for 25% of all accidents. At the time of the study, however, the types of distractions primarily involved talking to passengers, radio tuning, mind wandering, etc., as opposed to the additional distractions introduced by modern technology. <p class="content2">Some of the IVI projects, therefore, involve testing crash warning systems which could be installed in vehicles to alert drivers to the presence of objects alongside the car. Although benefits might be derived from such systems, the researchers are aware that such a system would not detect rapidly approaching cars and might create added safety problems by creating a false sense of security in the driver about to change lanes. (For a review of this information and studies conducted, visit the IVI's <a href="http://www.its.dot.gov/ivi/ivihf/Pages/LCMCA.html" target="_blank" class="content2"><font color="#EFA100">Lane Change and Merge Collision Avoidance</font></a> page. Furthermore, the <a href="http://www.its.dot.gov/ivi/ivihf/Pages/DWD.html" target="_blank" class="content2"><font color="#EFA100">Driver Distraction and Workload</font></a> initiative raises concerns that devices intended to warn drivers may actually create more distractions, or condition drivers to ignore alerts if they are too frequent or too sensitive to surroundings, leading to a substantially increased risk of accident. <p class="content2">What is clear from the IVI's studies is that governmental programs are focused on technology and how technology can help save us from ourselves. We seem to have such a technology perspective that, if there are lane changing collisions, we rush to produce and install technology to alert us about external objects. Refusal to use turn signals is a perfect example of the fact that we already fail to use technology currently available and legally mandated to be installed in vehicles. Why would we be any safer in a vehicle equipped with a crash warning system? Although social and behavioral change is noted as the fourth goal of the project, the IVI does not discuss what types of social and behavioral changes are needed to cause us to drive safely or how those changes could be effected. <p class="content2"><strong>The blackout brings enlightenment.</strong> <p class="content2">Until August of this year, I believed that the failure of many drivers to utilize turn signals was because of a fundamental lack of knowledge about traffic laws or even an advanced case of laziness. A week in the end of August 2003, however, made me change my mind completely. A large part of the northeastern United States and portions of eastern Canada suffered from one of the worst blackouts ever experienced. Entire areas went without electrical power for days. That meant no traffic lights or other electrical traffic devices were operational. If you ventured out onto the roadways, you were on your own. <p class="content2">Knowing traffic lights were not operational, I expected to find streets and highways in mass confusion. In actuality, I was surprised to discover that the traffic on the roads was entirely manageable. Drivers paid more attention to other cars, acted more patiently, allowed vehicles to cross traffic or merge, proceeded slowly, and acted with greater caution. And, yes, drivers used their turn signals. It was as if we resumed responsibility for our driving and stopped expecting everyone else to intuit our future actions. <p class="content2"><strong>A return to civility</strong> <p class="content2">It seems to me that the loss of civility is at the root of the "psychic driving" problem. Whether it begins with drivers failing to allow the signaler to change lanes, or whether the lane-changer simply assumes that advance notice will cause other drivers to engage in negative acts is almost irrelevant. What is relevant is that we already know how to drive civilly. We proved that in August. Perhaps, if the NHTSA and IVI focused the majority of their efforts on promoting the social and behavioral changes outlined as the fourth goal of the initiative, we could rapidly become better, safer, and more civil drivers.