Who Moved My Damn Switches?

You get used to your car. Far more so than you’d ever realise. You jump in, point it in whichever direction you’re aiming to travel in and then jump out again after a certain mileage has elapsed. You’re either driving for the sheer pleasure, in which case you’ll remember every single second, or you’re just getting a journey out of the way. If the latter applies then you’ll probably not recall a single moment of the trip. You’re basically on autopilot.
It’s on those journeys that you realise how familiar you’ve become with the controls of your car. Every control falls to hand so readily it’s used through instinct rather than thought. I only realised how true this was the other day when I reached for the stereo controls on my steering column to up the volume on a particularly absorbing Led Zeppelin track and the car suddenly changed down to third gear. Wondering why this had happened I suddenly realised I was driving a paddle-shift 2015 Mercedes and not my familiar old Rover.
And that wasn’t the first time, either.

It’s not just familiarity and the feeling of being at home that tells your brain where the controls should be hiding. Every car has its own start-up routine and some are more specific than others. Some cars have their wiper controls on one side of the column, some have them on the other. Sometimes you reach for an e-brake that isn’t there, and sometimes you find yourself fumbling to adjust the seat despite the switches being right in front of your eyes. It’s fine as long as nobody’s watching.
I was trying to look smooth and in control the other day when I split the driving with a Vauxhall Insignia owning friend. With my mind still set to Mercedes mode I jumped behind the wheel and started the engine. So far, so good.
Reached down and yanked the parking brake release with my right hand and tore the coin-storage box cover clean off. The parking brake is a little button on the centre console. Sorry, mate, I’ll put it back on later. Excellent. OK then, foot on the brake and put the column-shift automatic gearbox in drive: Yep, there go the wipers…
If it wasn’t for the excuse of unfamiliarity he would have asked if I had been drinking.
How has the decisive moment when you switch from one car to another ever affected you?
(Images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2015)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 64 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop files here

  1. Citric Avatar

    Every car I’ve ever owned has had column-mounted headlight switches. It’s not deliberate, it’s just how it happened. Every car my parents have ever owned have dashboard mounted headlight switches. So, as a result, if I’m driving my parents home in their car in the evening, it takes a fair bit of fumbling before I can find a switch.

  2. Andrew_theS2kBore Avatar

    Every time I drive an automatic, at some point there’s a decisive and alarming thud as I stomp on a non-existant clutch pedal…

    1. theskitter Avatar

      This is why I left foot brake 100% of the time in automatics.

    2. Drzhivago138 Avatar

      For me, that usually happens after I get into my own car or the F-150 and try to start it after driving our ’76 Ford L700 grain truck or ’08 F-350 farm truck all day.
      “Aah! Aah! No clutch! No clutch! We’re all gonna die–oh, wait…”

    3. Scoutdude Avatar

      Been there done that, but not in a long time.

    4. Sjalabais Avatar

      Same here. For a long time I was afraid I’d be too much of a vegetable to learn that in my wife’s auto trans car.
      Now, it’s months ago thos happened the last time. I feel like I’m part of the great human race once more.

    5. Citric Avatar

      I have big feet, so instead of a thud I tend to get rapid deceleration.
      Apparently when I was a boy my car seat was always in the middle of the front bench, and if my mother was driving one of the trucks a lot that week she would attempt to shift my feet when in her automatic car.

  3. Vavon Avatar

    This doesn’t affect me very much, except for one thing and no matter what car it is I’m driving:
    Quick, I need to sound the horn! Immediately press the side of the left hand column stalk, Nothing!
    Crap! Press center of steering wheel! Horn sounds… Every damn time, I just keep forgetting that!

  4. Fred Avatar

    In the Audi the wipers moved up, in the Acura it moves down. Hasn’t rained that much and after a year I still have to think about it.

  5. Tanshanomi Avatar

    Mrs. Tanshanomi makes fun of me because I will, without fail, walk up to our truck or her Chrysler and, with the remote fob in my hand, unlock it by putting the the ignition key into the door.
    I’m sorry, but I have never in my life routinely driven a car with remote locks; it just doesn’t come natural to me.

    1. LEROOOY Avatar

      I would still trade remote-access capability for a car key the size of a house key.
      I guess it’s a moot point now, the physical key is no longer necessary.

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        We own two ’02 cars with remote controls separate from the actual keys. I happily leave them at home and carry my keys in my pockets.

  6. roguetoaster Avatar

    At one point in time I had four different cars available to use, with differing numbers of gears, and differing shift patterns. This wouldn’t have normally been a problem if I used them for the tasks they were best suited to, but I was, for some reason, in the habit of splitting all driving duties between them.
    Car one, a 1976 2002:
    R 1 3
    — 2 4
    Car two, a 1984 528i:
    R 2 4
    1 3 5
    Car three, a 1995 540i:
    R 1 3 5
    — 2 4 6
    Car four, a 1989 Ranger:
    1 3 5
    2 4 R
    Not to say that I couldn’t find a gear, but it was more a problem of wondering where 5th gear went, not money shifting into 2nd, forgetting that 6th gear was there, and short shifting anything. At that time an automatic wouldn’t have gone unappreciated in my life.
    Edit: dashes are blanks as Disqus does not like free spaces.

  7. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    I’ve run into something like that. At one job we had Mazda B2200 pickups with bucket seats and manual transmissions, so I would fumble between the seats looking for the parking brake which was actually an umbrella handle under the dash. Same thing a few years later, we had a Corolla rental with automatic and all the autos I had driven were column shift so I tried to shift gears with the wiper stalk.

  8. dr zero Avatar
    dr zero

    The dumbest thing I’ve done in an unfamiliar was get into a LHD van, start it, then fumble around the door with my left hand trying to find a gear shift. All while trying to get used to driving an “enormous” van around Olso at midnight on a Saturday (I was the only one who hadn’t been drinking, I still had 2 weeks left on my licence, and we were trying to avoid parking fines).

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      Two weeks left on the license?
      I had a 1971 Volvo 145 once, the most all-round fantastic car I’ve owned. Muscle memory made me grab the hand brake to the left of me, between seat and door, way too many times after I had sold the beauty.

      1. dr zero Avatar
        dr zero

        I couldn’t renew my licence until I moved back to Australia about 2 months later. Having spent all of my life driving RHD cars, LHD was a struggle, like you, battling muscle memory.

    2. Cool_Cadillac_Cat Avatar

      You’re not alone in this, and I’ve never driven a RHD vehicle.
      Our 40′ motorcoach has the shift lever on the left, because there’s no door. Whenever we’d take extended trips, a few months, when we got back to home base, for a few days, when I drove my wife’s RX300, I’d instinctively reach for the left-side gear lever, and was rewarded with grasping air.
      The “toad”, towed vehicle, was a manual Grand Vitara, and was never a problem (well, in the gearshift location regard…the car itself garnered much hate over the years).

  9. danleym Avatar

    Try going from a car with manual brakes straight into a car with power brakes. First time you stop you’re guaranteed to put the passenger’s face into the windshield.

  10. salguod Avatar

    When I had the Saturn Outlook and my Mazda, they both have radio and cruise control switches on the face of the steering wheel. The Mazda has radio on the left and cruise on the right, the Saturn was the reverse. Many times I changed the radio station in the Saturn trying to set the cruise.

  11. Hatchtopia Avatar

    I took a trip to Australia a few years back. Rented a succession of Toyota Corolla Seca hatchbacks, all automatic. Other than trying to get in the *correct* side a couple of times, no worries. Then the last car I get is a Holden with a stick. I have no problem with driving a stick when it’s on my right/correct side, but for some reason, when shifting with my left hand, I kept executing perfect 1-to-4 shifts. Needless to say, the Holden didn’t really support that sort of behavior.

    1. Manic_King Avatar

      I had my first RHD experience recently, rented an Proton in Malaysia, thankfully automatic. I too tried to take wrong side of the road after turning, but biggest PITA was switched turn signal/wiper stalks. Bone dry windshield received slight scrubbing from wipers couple of times.

  12. Batshitbox Avatar

    I felt a close kinship with Jeremy Clarkson when he was driving a very late model Cadillac and popped the hood when he meant to release the parking brake. “OMG my ’91 Sierra does the same thing! I had no idea it was cla$$y!”
    You know what? Motorcycles,that’s what. In a given month I’m on a Suzuki DL650 and a DRZ400, a Kawasaki EX500, a Triumph Thunderbird 900 and a BMW R1200C. It doesn’t matter. With the exception of the BMW’s turn signals being Harley-style with a button on each hand grip (but a cancel button only on one side!) they all have the same controls.
    Pretty much, unless I’m on a British bike from the ’60s (so far that’s never), everything is right where you expect it to be. Motorcycle manufacturers don’t do well if they confuse the riders too much, I guess.

    1. dead_elvis Avatar

      The first time on an old Britbike, or anything with an upside down shift pattern, makes for some seat-puckering moments (amusing in retrospect, but only then).

  13. dead_elvis Avatar

    If I’ve been on the forklift for most of the day at work, when I get in the car to go home it’s not uncommon to find myself signaling right, expecting to move forward.

    1. roguetoaster Avatar

      In school I drove transit buses around campus, and whenever I’d end my shift back at the bus lot I’d get in to my Ranger and feel like I just jumped in to a clown car with an itty bitty steering wheel and no turn signals on the floor.

      1. dead_elvis Avatar

        Neato! I’ve had a few vehicles with the high/low beam selector on the floor, but the turn signal switch down there is a new one to me.

  14. Tiller188 Avatar

    For me it was headlights. I did most of my learning on my family’s mid-90s Volvo, an interesting trait of which was that it used its low beams as its DRLs. As such, for the vast majority of driving we did in that car, the headlight switch never needed to be touched; the “off”/DRL setting was the same as the headlights-on setting, with the exception, I gather, of how the high-beam switching behaved.
    I never really thought about that, until one night not too long after I’d gotten my full-fledged license and had begun driving around in our old conversion van (which, needless to say, had no such fancy thing as DRLs, and had a pull-out switch that looked an awful lot like a cigarette lighter to operate its headlights). Leaving a well-lit shopping center parking lot at night, I managed to get all the way out to the main road before wondering why my gauges were all dark. I did at least know where the switch was once I figured out the problem, though.

    1. Frank T. Cat Avatar
      Frank T. Cat

      SAAB did the same thing; the headlight switch does nothing to shut the headlights off by default. On my NG900 I pulled the ‘DRL’ fuse to bypass that behavior, so the headlight switch functions normally (off is OFF!!!!!)

    2. Andrew Avatar

      Another difference would be that “off/DRL” means the taillights are not on. Important thing to remember in inclement weather.

  15. Scoutdude Avatar

    My problem lately has been in cars that are the same but different. My Son’s Taurus was due to be replaced so I gave him my Grand Marquis and started driving our SUV as our daily driver. Then a few weeks ago the Check Transmission message came up in the display and I just haven’t had the time to go to my friend’s shop and borrow the scan tool. So I started driving what is supposed to be my Daughter’s car which is a P71. The GM was the LS Limited so it naturally has Autolamps. The CV being a police car does not have Autolamps, nor does it have a head lamp on buzzer. So I’ve left the lights on dozens of times. Luckily it is a Ford so it has the Battery Saver Function. I have come out to the car many of times, turned the key and the lights came on….. oops left the lights on again. I did go borrow my friend’s scanner that will read transmission codes so I’ll soon get back to driving the SUV with Autolamps.

  16. Troggy Avatar

    My usual work car had a bench seat with column shift. A workmate lent me his (same make/model) car while mine was in for a service. I jumped in, started it and promptly ripped out the windscreen wiper stalk trying to find drive. oops – his car was the bucket seat version with floor gear selector.
    Motorcycles can get you too – My Suzuki GS500 had the horn below the indicators, my Honda Crossrunner has the horn above the indicators. Switching from one bike to the other invariably meant tooting the horn at every corner or lane change.

  17. Frank T. Cat Avatar
    Frank T. Cat

    I still reach for the column shifter on every car I drive if I’m not paying attention. I haven’t daily driven my van, the car that hardwired that habit into me, in three years.

  18. 0A5599 Avatar

    I had a 10 year span between driving an earlier version of my daily driver and the one I drive now. There are some dash layout differences, including moving the wiper switch to the turn signal stalk.
    In between I had a half dozen totally different cars I used on a regular basis. To this day, my first instinct when it starts raining is to reach for the wrong location for the switch.

  19. marmer Avatar

    My mother in law had a pilot’s license before she had a driver’s license, and had a share in a Cessna for many years. My wife says that when she was a little girl and would go flying with her mom, on the way home if they came to a left turn her mom would slam on the brake and if they came to a right turn she would floor the accelerator.

  20. Cool_Cadillac_Cat Avatar

    Not a switch thing, but a functional one…to this day, because my first vehicle(s) were non-synchro first gear, three-on-the-tree Dodge vans from the 60’s, I’ll ‘clear’ a manual gearbox with another gear, typically 2nd, but sometimes other ones, depending on how toasted the 2nd gear synchro is.