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Cars and trucks these days have so many gadgets and features that some of us have quite a time learning how to make use of them. I have been driving my 2012 Chrysler Town and Country minivan for six years now, and just this year I discovered that the transmission control lever can be moved to the side to limit how far up the range the transmission shifts. Also, today I discovered that I could be having my cell phone on the speaker inside the car. Flashing turn signals are so ordinary and essentially universal on today's vehicles that few people would consider what it might be like not to have them. But some of us old-timers can well remember when vehicles didn't have signal lights.

I began life in the early 1940s. At that time, I don't recall seeing any cars or trucks equipped with signal lights. I do recall that some after-market suppliers of automotive gadgets were beginning to offer add-on kits that would give a vehicle flashing signal lights. There was a switch unit that would be strapped onto the steering column just beneath the steering wheel, and four round red lights about six inches in diameter to be bolted to each fender by boring a hole in the top of the fender and attaching the light by a clamp nut. It wasn't made for looking sleek, but it was functional.

Actually several technological automotive advances were getting a start by the late 1940s. Automatic transmissions were becoming available on some makes and models, although the standard transmission for new cars and trucks was still the old familiar three-speed, manual shift, synchromesh gearbox. By the mid-1950s, some cars were offering an automatic headlight dimming attachment. Some of the nice Oldsmobile cars had this little tower standing in front of the windshield, with the ability to detect headlights ahead and automatically dim your headlights. At that time apparently the feature didn't really catch on; but I notice that most cars today have automatic headlight controls.

So, younger people might ask, if cars didn't have signal lights, how did you do your signals? Well, it sort of depended on whether or not you had read your book to get a driver's license. If you hadn't read it, you might just drive without signalling at all. But if you had read it, and if you were conscientious about letting other drivers know what you were about to do on the road, you would familiarize yourself with a set of hand signals.

The old-time hand signals were pretty simple to use, at least if you were a motivated driver. There was a bit of a problem, in that to execute the hand signals, you had to open your drivers-side window. In bad winter weather, there could be less of a motivation to do that. But if you were conscientious and motivated, and if you felt that you had some duty to inform your fellow drivers of your next move on the road, then you cranked down your window and executed a proper hand turn signal. The left-turn signal was the simplest. You simply held your arm straight out to the side, pointing to the left. Of course if you were about to meet a wide-bed truck coming close, you might take your hand back inside rather deftly.

The right-turn signal was a bit more complex. You put your elbow out the drivers-side window, with your hand and forearm pointing upward. Some might add a little extra flourish by pointing over the top of the car with the fingers, but the rule was simply the forearm pointing upward to inform you fellow drivers that you were about to turn right. I note that our cars today don't provide an equivalent to our old-time "slowing down" hand signal. To let other drivers that you were about to slow down, you extended your arm out the window, pointing outward and downward at at least a 45 to 60 degree angle. Some old-time drivers were pretty lazy about their "slow-down" signal, and would just let their left arm hang loosely out the window. I guess it still got the idea across, though it lacked that conscientious crispness.

One beef related to turn signals seems timeless. It is just as true today with our advanced flasher systems as it was in the old days of hand signalling our turns. That is, many people wait too late to signal. If you wait until you are already turning before switching on your signal lights, you haven't helped your fellow drivers at all. Of course you don't want to turn on the signals so early that your fellow drivers start wondering if you actually are planning to turn. But give them at least five to 10 seconds of warning that you are fixin' to turn this way or that, right soon now.


Editor's note: Jerry Nichols, a native of Pea Ridge and can be contacted by email at, or call 621-1621. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Editorial on 02/28/2018

Print Headline: Do you know 'hand' turn signals?

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