How was Stonehenge built? Who was Jack the Ripper? What happens to a star sucked into a black hole? Why don’t Miami drivers use turn signals?
These are the great mysteries of the universe.
The flashing turn signal, or blinker, has been a standard safety feature on cars since 1939. It’s easy for the driver to respectfully indicate whether he is turning left or right or changing lanes. It prevents collisions. It reduces road rage. Drivers are required by law to use it.
But they don’t. Turn signal neglect is an epidemic in South Florida.
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“The turn signal only works as well as the driver of the car, and if the driver isn’t courteous or responsible, it’s useless,” said Ted Hollander, an attorney at The Ticket Clinic, which cites Section 316.155 of the Florida Statutes on its website and advises clients that “the turn signal is not optional, although you may not know that if you drive daily on Florida streets.”
Failure to use turn signals results in two million collisions annually in the U.S., according to research by the Society of Automotive Engineers. That’s more than twice the 950,000 annual collisions attributed to distracted driving.
Drivers fail to use turn signals 48 percent of the time when changing lanes and 25 percent of the time when making a turn, according to a report by automotive engineer Richard Ponziani, who observed 12,000 turning vehicles. That’s two billion times a day that Americans do not use turn signals.
“It’s an emotional subject for drivers who are spending more and more hours in their cars,” Ponziani said. “We found it to be the No. 1 pet peeve. But simple to eliminate. Just use your blinker. There’s a chance of a crash each time you do not.”
Ponziani conducted his field study in Dayton, Ohio, which is in the Midwest, where people are nice. He predicted that the percentages would rise in the Miami metropolis, where people are aggressive or oblivious. Here, it’s Mad Max or Mr. Magoo behind the wheel. Drivers either don’t want to cede an inch of territory to competing drivers or they are not paying attention. Here, instead of mindfulness — the healthy way of living in the moment — Miamians practice mindlessness — the selfish way of living as if you are the only human inhabiting your surrounding environment.
“In Miami you’ve got a volatile mix: elderly drivers, tourists on vacation in an unfamiliar place driving in an unfamiliar rental car, and people who have moved there from other countries, where the rules and customs are different,” Ponziani said. “Drivers are in their own little world. You have to watch out for them.”
In Miami, “every motorist drives according to the laws of his or her individual country or planet of origin,” humorist Dave Barry famously concluded. Which means using turn signals is not a habit.
One popular theory holds that using turn signals is a sign of weakness. If a driver signals his intention to change lanes, the cars around him take it as a personal insult that they’ll be cut off or fall behind. So they accelerate.
“In Los Angeles people use their blinkers but here there’s a tendency not to use them or to use them only at the last second,” said Jean-Pierre Bardet, dean of the University of Miami’s College of Engineering. He moved here two years ago after 30 years in L.A. “Because if you put your signal on too early, other drivers will speed up or maneuver to fill the space: ‘That’s my space so don’t take it!’
“In L.A. drivers are more laid back because they are resigned to sitting in freeway traffic for two hours. Here, drivers are more hostile. A lot of driving is negotiated. It’s a competitive mentality.”
It’s also a macho mentality.
“Not letting someone in is more common behavior among males, and refusing to use the turn signal is an affirmation of manhood,” said Michael French, professor of health economics at the University of Miami, and an avid motorcyclist. “There is a domino effect when you see people cutting into your lane, cutting across multiple lanes, making sudden turns or driving erratically without signaling. Drivers think, ‘OK, I can do that, too.’ It’s a prime factor in the high number of road rage incidents in South Florida.
A car, especially one with tinted windows, affords anonymity, which frees the driver to discard bonds of civility and act upon his or her combative, survival-of-the-fittest instincts.
“We’ll stand in a grocery store line and let the person behind us who has only two items go ahead of us as an act of politeness,” Ponziani said. “But we put on this exoskeleton of the car, get inside this machine and it’s me against the world.”
Another reason drivers don’t use turn signals is because they are distracted, and research shows distracted drivers are even more impaired than drunk drivers, French said.
One hand is on the wheel and the other is holding the cellphone (or both hands are on the phone, texting or emailing). Or the spare hand is applying makeup, inserting food, fiddling with the stereo, holding a commuter cup.
“Audi and BMW were the last manufacturers to install cup holders because in Germany they take driving very seriously. Driving is a privilege that requires your full concentration, and you should not be drinking a beverage,” Ponziani said. “In the U.S. we’re drinking coffee, talking on the phone, sending texts. Americans are under the illusion that they’re safe and they become unaware of the risks they take.
“We’ve got 200 million cars driving three trillion miles per year on roads that are at max capacity. The turn signal is a preventative device that is more essential than ever.”
Ponziani, French and Bardet have observed driving habits all over the world. In Puerto Rico, “anything goes, even driving on the sidewalk,” French said. In Paris, “cars are driven in very close proximity to each other and parking is done by using the bumpers to push into the space,” and in Istanbul “the traffic is extremely dense with the complication of pedestrians in the streets,” Bardet said. In Detroit, “the normal flow speed is 85 mph,” Ponziani said. In Boston, it’s a race. In Germany, lollygagging or rule-breaking — such as using the left lane for anything other than passing —is not tolerated, and drivers police each other by honking horns or flashing headlights.
In the U.S., where obtaining a license is fairly easy, drivers tend to overestimate their abilities.
“If you ask 20 Americans if they consider themselves to be above-average drivers, 95 percent will say yes,” French said.
On a Yelp site pondering the peculiar driving patterns in Miami, the comments ranged from “We get two kinds here: Never use them or leave on for miles and miles” to “I thought it was because they just ran out of blinker fluid.”
Lack of enforcement also causes turn signal laziness. Hollander of The Ticket Clinic said only 5 percent of the firm’s cases involve citations for not using signals. He has successfully defended clients presumed to be at fault in a rear-end collision that was caused by a driver who turned abruptly without signaling.
How can rampant turn signal apathy be cured? In a recent local initiative, digital highway signs reminded drivers that “it’s the law” to use signals upon changing lanes.
Ponziani is an advocate of programming turn signal reminders into cars, much like seat belt beeps and flashing lights are standard. Seat belt usage — now required by law — has increased from 14 to 80 percent in the last 30 years, he said.
“Wheel speed sensors that detect a turn are already on cars and it’s a matter of programming the internal computer at negligible cost to have a warning pop up on the display when a driver fails to signal several times in a row,” he said. “It would condition people, just as the seat belt reminder has. People would learn they have a duty to use it, just as they have a duty to stop at a stop sign, and that it would save lives, just as seat belts save lives. It’s an alert that basically says, ‘Hey, don’t break the law.’”
Autonomous self-driving cars, expected to hit the road as early as 2020, could make our mean streets safer and more efficient. Turn signals would be automatic in these smart cars.
“The turn signal requires human intervention and there lies the weak link,” Ponziani said. “You remove human error in driverless cars.”
Current average highway lane capacity is 1,800-2,000 cars per hour and that would increase to 4,000 with autonomous vehicles that can drive faster and closer together, said Mohammed Hadi, a professor of transportation engineering at Florida International University’s College of Engineering and Computing, where he can study behavior inside the Driving Simulation Lab.
“These driverless cars can also talk to each other through peer-to-peer technology so you don’t have to rely on drivers communicating with each other — often poorly,” Hadi said. “They can adjust speed, avoid collisions. We expect congestion and crash rates to drop significantly.”
Bardet points out that Los Angeles’ massive freeway network replaced a train system because people were enamored with the freedom of driving cars. No more. He is a weary road warrior of two of the country’s most congested cities and can’t wait for driverless cars that adhere to rules. Computers can’t be rude, can they?
“Aggressiveness decreases with better mobility,” Bardet said. “We can’t change human nature, but we can change mobility.”