The Germans Aren’t Just Cutting Corners On Emissions…

James Kraus

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U.S.-spec 718 Boxster. Is the driver braking? Turning? Who knows? Who cares? Porsche doesn’t; but you should.

Everywhere outside of North America, rear turn indicators are required to be amber in colour. This is due to extensive research going back decades demonstrating amber conclusively outperforming red in terms of recognition time. The latest studies by the NHTSA in 2008 and 2009 show a significant reduction in collisions when vehicles are equipped with amber rear indicators (assuming of course that drivers actually use them.)  

Originally, turn indicators were undifferentiated from other automotive lamps. The fronts were white like headlights and side-parking lamps, and the rears were red like tail and stop lamps. Following a series of research studies in the early 1960s, international discussions took place and it was decided that a third colour would be ideal for turn indicators.

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1962 Volvo 122

Beginning in 1962 the majority of European manufacturers switched over to amber signals front and rear.

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1962 VW 1200

A notable exception was Italy. Italian law mandated white turn indicators at the front with amber side repeaters and amber rear indicators. When EU lighting regulations were harmonized, Italy adopted amber front signals and Europe mandated amber side repeaters (now most often built into outside mirror housings) throughout the union.

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1967 Fiat Dino Spider with circular amber side repeater and white front-facing turn indicators.

U.S. automakers however rebelled at the projected expense of discrete amber indicators and agreed to a haphazard cost-saving compromise. Beginning with 1963 models, they simply dyed the front parking/turn signal lenses amber. This produced amber turn indication, but also confusingly resulted in amber parking, side (and later front side-marker) lights.

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1962 (white) and 1963 (amber) front indicators on Chevrolet Corvair.

Thus, the idea of reserving amber to signify an upcoming change in direction was completely lost, a problem that persists to this day. Out back, the status quo was maintained by keeping rear indicators red as American manufacturers balked at the cost of bi-coloured lenses and two additional wire runs, lamps and lamp sockets.

U.S. regulations codified this practice until 1968 when amber rear signals were first allowed. Interestingly enough, German manufacturers were among the first to begin equipping their U.S.-bound vehicles accordingly. By 1972, the VW Beetle and Bus, and the Mercedes 350 SL all sported amber signals at the rear.

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1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL.

By the 1980s all U.S.-spec German cars were equipped with (to use a term quite popular at the time) World Class turn signals of glowing amber. This lasted until the dawn of the 21st century when the Germans decided pretty much simultaneously to go “American style” and save a few Euros in the bargain. At BMW the backward march to ineffectual red turn indicators began with the E90 3-Series and quickly spread like a cancer throughout the range.

Mercedes-Benz was once an industry pioneer in safety, leading the way with crumple zones, energy-absorbing steering components, padded interiors and recessed door handles. Their Director of Safety in the 1960s; Béla Barényi, must be spinning in his grave.

Others have blindly followed the Germans, including Tesla with their Model S (although the newer Model X has amber rear signals worldwide.)

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Boise, Berlin or Beijing: Chevrolet gives American buyers the same high-end rear lamp clusters that Corvette customers in Germany and China receive.

Other manufacturers including Cadillac, Chevrolet (Corvette), Land Rover and Lexus have no trouble splurging on amber rear indicators rather than treat North American customers as second-class citizens.

In a sea of cars with red rear indicators, best of luck trying to ascertain whether an adjacent driver ahead has hit the brakes, or is in fact intending to pull into your lane. At 100 kph (62 mph) it will take over a second to find the answer (mandatory flash rates are 1-2 Hertz.) During that interval your vehicle will have travelled about 40 meters (135 feet.)

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Thomas-Built school bus, Pennsylvania

School buses, fire trucks, ambulances and other first response vehicles in the U.S. are nearly always equipped with extra safety of amber rear indicators, unlike a new U.S.-spec $140,000 BMW Alpina B7.

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Seagrave Marauder Pumper, Los Angeles City Fire Department.

Some U.S. driver’s take matters into their own hands, replacing their emasculated red indicators by retro-fitting European lamp assemblies to their U.S-spec vehicles.

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Southern California-based BMW M235i with European-market tail lamp clusters fitted. Turn signal sector appears red, yet flashes amber.

Unfortunately this often cannot be done as some manufacturers tie the brake and turn indicator segments together in software for the North American market making the lamps even more ineffectual. Such a unit is incapable of displaying braking and turn-indication simultaneously; brake application during turn-signaling will only be conveyed to motorists following in adjacent lanes if the centre (CHMSL) and/or opposite side lamp cluster happen to be visible. Not surprisingly, the seemingly mephistophelean VW group is the biggest offender here; all their brands suffer this incomprehensible modification.

The Germans were once masters at functional design; now they play to the beat of a different drummer. The deletion of amber turn indicators is corner-cutting on safety that is easily and readily visible. It leads one to wonder what lies beneath the surface; what corners are being cut where we can’t see?

10 thoughts on “The Germans Aren’t Just Cutting Corners On Emissions…

  1. By all means a serious issue, for many reasons. You should consider forwarding this on to the NHTSA and/or motoring or insurance industry media about this issue.

  2. After travelling extensively in the US, I am not sure if red rear indictors are any more effective than hand signals.

  3. For French readers, an interesting history of front lights as from a French viewpoint. Notably, why the French used yellow headlights for so long, contrary to many other countries.

    Alternatively, Google Translate after copying-pasting or import the url in the Google to-translate window.

  4. Wonderful, thoughtful commentary. It is so sad to see almost all the European brands (sadly now including Volvo) happily jump on the “red turn light bandwagon.” Is there anything that can be done? Is there any prospect for change in the future?

    • I’m not sure what can be done at this point, but I’m happy to know that there are others out there that aren’t happy to accept sub-par engineering.

  5. You’re absolutely right. Amber is the right colour for rear turn signals, and red is the wrong one. That’s been known for many decades; it keeps on coming up as the result of all kinds of research studies on the matter, whether they’re theoretical or practical, and no matter who does them.

    That said, there are problems with the rest-of-world UN (ECE, “European”) rear turn signal standard, too; it allows the rear turn signals to be much too small and much too dim. The minimum intensity for a US-spec amber rear turn signal is 130 candela; European ones are allowed to be as dim as 50 candela, which might be marginally OK after dark but is completely useless (invisible) in any kind of bright daylight.

    On the other hand, the US amber rear turn signals are allowed to be much too bright (glaring). It wouldn’t be technically difficult to devise a single standard to satisfy everyone…the difficulty is political. 😦

  6. This design choice is maddening. There needs to be a class action lawsuit against the DOT/ NTHSA, etc. Style over safety? I think not.

  7. The reason German cars have resorted to flashing the brake light is due to the outdated regulations that oversee such things. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) stipulates that there must be a “minimum area of initial illumination” and many of these designs don’t meet that despite being much brighter LEDs. Why? Because the law was written in the early 1960s based off early 1960s technology and has not been updated since. Imagine applying 60 year-old rules to anything else. Nothing would get done or even be allowed. These lights are not the fault of shoddy design or laziness. They are symptomatic of a larger, bureaucratic problem.

    • That’s not really the core issue as the majority of Asian imports to the U.S have amber rear turn signals, as well as number of U.S cars including the Tesla Model X, Cadillac Escalade and the (recently withdrawn from the U.S. market) Ford Fiesta.

      At the launch of the E90 several years ago a BMW of North America executive admitted that the decision to “Go Red” in the U.S. was because they believed that their customers thought the red was “cool.”

      The issue of minimum area of initial illumination I believe was only an issue thus far with Audi’s sequential rear signals. The US lighting laws are indeed long obsolete, but the NHTSA hasn’t done much for years (an amber rear signal proposal has been in limbo since 2015) and I doubt many new legislation reforms will be forthcoming with the exception of regulations covering autonomous vehicle systems.

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