What are Trafficators?

Mary McMahon

Trafficators are devices once used on motor vehicles to indicate that a vehicle was intending to turn. They replaced hand signals, where people used their arms to provide information to cars around them, and were in turn replaced by indicator lights. The trafficator design was introduced in the early 1900s and phased out in the 1940s and 1950s as reliable indicator lights were introduced and many nations began requiring them for safety. Trafficators can still be seen on some vintage cars.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

When not in use, each trafficator folded into the door pillar in order to be unobtrusive. When people activated a device inside the car, the corresponding trafficator would flip out. The trafficators indicated whether a car was turning right or left at an intersection, providing a clear visual signal and allowing people to keep their hands free for driving. This represented a safety improvement over traditional hand signals.

Trafficators could be painted with reflective materials to be more visible, but they did not light up or blink. As manufacturers began introducing indicator lights, many countries deemed these safer and more effective. They could be seen in the dark and in dim conditions like fog, and didn't protrude from the vehicle, limiting risks for other drivers, as well as people like cyclists. As a result, most vehicle codes today require vehicles to be fitted with blinking indicator lamps in the front and rear.

Some vintage cars retain their trafficators. Drivers often have trouble finding parts to use when they need to service their cars and in some cases must fabricate the parts they need. With some cars, the vehicle has been retrofitted to retain the trafficators while also providing blinking indicator lights to make sure other drivers know the car is turning. Drivers may do this out of a concern for safety, or to comply with the vehicle code, as not all nations have exemptions for vintage cars.

When trafficators began to be phased out, some drivers removed them and replaced them with indicator lights in the interests of safety. As a result, some older cars originally designed for use with trafficators can be seen with more conventional blinking turn signals. This can sometimes make it hard to determine the vintage of a car, as the presence of turn signals may lead people to conclude that the car is a later model when this is not, in fact, the case.

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