Road Rules: Terrible turn signals


Question: Whose bright idea was it to start putting the rear turn signal lights on the bumper area a foot below the rest of the rear lights?

Answer: I’m going to abandon all tact and just say it. Low-mounted turn signals are dumb. Oh, and your opening pun is brilliant. As to whose idea it was, I have two answers: one wrong, one right, both not great.

The conspiracy theorists will tell you that big auto, big insurance, and big government have colluded to increase rear-end crashes through poor vehicle design. Car companies reap massive profit from parts and service on vehicle repairs, insurance companies jack up rates for more frequent crashes, the government gets to tax all that revenue, and the senators get paid off by the lobbyists. That’s the wrong answer, in case you’re wondering.

The real answer isn’t much better: Some car designers think it looks nice. Okay, there’s a bit more to it. Turn signals and brake lights are required by law to be mounted on a fixed part of the vehicle. That makes sense: If your light assembly is mounted in your liftgate and you’re hauling a load of 2x4s sticking out the back of your SUV, your brake lights are now facing the sky. The dilemma is easily solvable; use tall and narrow taillight assemblies mounted in the rear pillars. Plenty of vehicles do this without a problem.

But right now, thin is in. Or maybe the opposite: Wide and short is in. But I couldn’t think of a rhyme for that. Next time you’re out, take a look at the taillight assemblies on new cars. Some of them are more than a foot wide, but only a few inches tall. Much of that foot-wide light assembly extends into the trunk or liftgate. Only the portion that’s on the vertical pillar can be used for signal and brake lights. Within that remaining portion, there are minimum size requirements for the brake light and turn signal. Some designs have gotten so small that there isn’t room for the turn signal, so they opt to move it down to the bumper.

I’ve said this before, and it certainly applies here. Just because it’s legal, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. The law has some latitude for the height of taillights to allow for vehicle designs, but I bet when they wrote it (many years ago) they didn’t anticipate that vehicle designers would use that law as a loophole to split the brake and turn lights into separate locations.

When you’re gathering information about the intentions of the vehicle in front of you, where do you look? Yeah, you look somewhere around the beltline of the vehicle, where most taillights have been for most of automotive history. Why would a car designer think it’s a good idea to stick them somewhere else?

If you own a vehicle with this poor design, you might have noticed an increased use of horns and fingers directed at you. It’s not you; you’re being penalized for bad vehicle design. In this column we mostly look at how driver behavior affects traffic safety, but vehicle manufacturers play a big role too, often positive (like seat belts, ABS brakes, and crumple zones) but sometimes not so good. In addition to low turn signals, tall hoods come to mind, and combined they’re even worse.

If any designers at Hyundai, Kia, Chevy, Infiniti and Toyota are reading this (those are the ones I’m aware of – there could be more), there’s more to great design than style; remember the safety of the end user too.

Doug Dahl is a manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Region 11 and publishes


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