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Signal lights no longer an option

Joyce Walter reflects on the simple but effective signal light.
Reflective Moments by Joyce Walter

We old folks have seen many miraculous inventions over the years: 24-hour radio and television, microwave ovens, computers, cellphones, digital cameras and medical techniques never thought possible 50 years ago.

And please, let us not forget the invention of signal lights on motor vehicles — those lights that often go unused by drivers on today’s streets and highways.

At one time, many, many years ago, signal lights were one of the options offered when a new vehicle was being purchased. In some cases, drivers didn’t want to spend that extra $7 for some new-fangled attachment to the steering column. They likely figured the signal lights were for folks who didn’t know beforehand where they were going, and besides, in a small town no one signalled because one’s destination was always the same and other drivers knew it well.

Several people are credited with the invention of the signal light, but most noteworthy is Oscar J. Simler who came up with the concept in 1929. It took another 10 years before consumers had a chance to try the invention. The 1938 Buick featured “the flash way directional signal” on the rear of the car only so drivers following could be alerted to a change of direction. Front signals were added to the Buick in the early 1940s.

By the mid to late 1950s most cars and trucks came equipped with signal lights, freeing drivers from having to learn and use the appropriate hand signals, in sunny weather and rain, in dust storms and snow white-outs.

The other day I saw a rider of a bicycle signalling in the old fashioned way to make a turn. I smiled when I saw his left arm pointing straight out, indicating to me that a left hand turn was in his plan. This clever youngster also looked both ways before safely making his turn across traffic and carrying on down the street.

The extended left arm would have been familiar to older and more experienced drivers, some of whom likely used such a signal in their early car-driving years. A right turn was indicated by placing one’s elbow on the window ledge then raising the forearm up with one’s hand open. A stop indicator was the arm out and angling downward.

My research on this was a bit of a lark as the information indicated that using the  driver’s left arm was mandatory in Saskatchewan and Canada. I think using one’s right arm would have merely smacked any front seat passenger in the nose and would not have been seen by other drivers. The writer didn’t say it but it was assumed the driver’s window would have been cranked down so as to allow the arm to emerge.

We had one old vehicle, a black truck, that didn’t have interior turn signals and I recall my Mother being upset that Dad got the sleeve of his Sunday suit wet while signalling in the rain.

I learned those hand signals when learning to ride my bike, and they were part of the written driver’s licence exam, although the RCMP cruiser of 1966 which we used for our actual driving test had signal lights — which we had to use correctly.

Which brings me to the point of this drive down memory lane. It is to ask drivers of today to please use those signal lights more often than they do. They come in handy for letting other drivers know you are planning to change lanes, want to make a left or right turn, or plan to ease into a parking place.

Their regular use will mean fewer accidents, less brakes being slammed on when you switch lanes and nearly remove the front bumper of an unsuspecting vehicle, and less road rage situations when the signals aren’t used.

I wonder how many of today’s drivers would mistake an arm raised for a right turn as an obnoxious signal and take offence? Hmmm, an interesting speculation.


Joyce Walter can be contacted at

Editor's Note: This column was originally printed on May 4, 2016 and is reprised here this week because some drivers still don't seem aware of how to use that piece of standard equipment on modern vehicles. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.