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> Via Turn Signals
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Via Turn Signals

Before I tell you how I use turn signals as a mode of communication, I have to rant a bit, and tell you how I don't use them.

There is a certain mindset that some people have that irritates me no end. It goes something like this.

I am following the letter of the law, therefore I am irreproachably in the right, regardless of the consequences.

I'm not sure what I want to call this mindset. I could call it the bureaucratic mindset, but I don't think that does justice to the great variety of contexts it can occur in. Instead, for now, I'll refer to it as mindless rule-following.

Within the context of driving, by far the most common and annoying kind of mindless rule-following is when someone is set on obeying the speed limit even though it causes ver to obstruct traffic. The canonical example, I think, is when one such driver tries to pass another on a two-lane highway—two lanes going the same direction, I mean. The two end up blocking both lanes, in an automotive version of Parcheesi. Neither can speed up, because they're set on obeying the speed limit, and neither can slow down, because they literally have no concept that would allow it. (The concept, or meme, that's absent is the second one I mentioned in Foolish Consistency.)

The result is also an egregious violation of the principle of relative speed, of course.

A less common kind of mindless rule-following is when someone insists on using vis turn signals for every single turn or lane change. I would probably never have known such people existed, if I hadn't had some of them as passengers, or rather as back-seat drivers.

Now, I guess I have to admit there's no harm in using your turn signals all the time. However, it is also true that turn signals have absolutely no function except to communicate with other drivers; using them unnecessarily is like walking around mumbling to yourself. So, although I don't mind other people doing it, I resent being told I ought to do it myself.

Here are some examples of situations in which I think turn signals are unnecessary, and so don't normally use them.

  • When there are no other cars around. Duh!
  • When I'm changing lanes, and there are no cars close behind in any lane. Cars close ahead do not matter—the point of signaling a lane change is to avoid alarming cars that are close behind.

    (Although I don't always signal, I do always look over my shoulder to check my blind spot. Well, almost always. Only if I've just looked a second before, and am feeling unusually aware of the cars around me, will I change lanes without checking.)

  • When I'm in a lane that is required to turn. The lane can be a lane of a highway, or a lane leading up to a traffic light. There is one small exception, though. You know how when you're making a left at a light, and the light doesn't have a left-turn arrow, you sometimes end up sitting in the middle of the intersection waiting to turn? In that situation, I like to use my turn signal so that the oncoming traffic knows why I'm sitting there.
  • When I'm in a lane that divides. The division does not have to be a (rare) symmetrical one—if I'm in the leftmost lane, and the road widens, or the rightmost lane, and a turn or exit lane appears, that counts as division too. The way I see it, if it's my lane that divides, I get first choice as to which of the lanes I want to be in.

    The only time I signal at a division is when (a) the division is asymmetrical, (b) I want to move into the new lane, (c) someone is tailgating me, and (d) I suspect ve might jump into the new lane and try to pass. And what does my signaling mean? “Don't even think about it!”.

That's all I wanted to say about how I don't use turn signals. Now, finally, I will tell you the interesting part, how I do use them. I don't have any general theory, just a bunch of examples. We've already seen a few, actually, in the exceptions to the previous examples; now here are some more.

  • Although I mostly don't use turn signals when I'm going to change lanes, I occasionally use them to indicate that I want to, that I'd like the cars in the next lane to make room for me. That is not a great secret, but it is a good example.
  • Sometimes, I signal when I intend to pass on the right, as explained in Via Lane Change.

    Speaking of communication via lane change, I'd like to point out that if you signal before every lane change, then the two channels of communication are not independent.

  • Once in a while, if I'm feeling particularly friendly, I'll signal when another driver doesn't realize ve's left vis turn signal on, as explained in Reflexivity.
  • I've saved the best example for last, but it requires a bit of explanation. If I'm on a highway, getting close to the exit I want, and I catch up to a slower car, I usually won't bother passing, I'll just wait for the exit—a scenario I mentioned in Via Change in Speed. Now suppose that while I'm waiting, another car catches up to me. If the driver of that other car is paying attention, and is unusually polite (too polite), ve will see that I'm behind a slower car, will expect that I want to pass, and will wait for me to go first. When that happens, I like to blink my right blinker for a moment, to explain that I'm getting off at the next exit.


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@ July (2002)