The Essentials
Steering Wheel, Controls and Ignition

The Steering Column: Lights, Wipers & Ignition Key Postitions

Updated Dec. 29, 2020

Vehicle controls are designed to be easily accessible to the driver. Every switch, button, lever, dial and pedal you need to control your car will be within reach of your position in the driver’s seat. Without moving from an ideal sitting position, you can brake, steer, accelerate, operate window and door locks, activate lights and control the temperature inside the car. Most of these control devices – particularly those you will need while the car is in motion – are in the footwell, on the dashboard and around the steering column in front of you.

In this guide, we’ll introduce you to the main vehicle controls you will find around the steering column. While every make and model of car is different, these will likely include the horn, ignition switch, turn signals, windscreen wiper controls and of course, the steering wheel.

Steering wheel

The steering wheel controls the angle of the vehicle’s front wheels. From the driver’s seat, you will manipulate the direction the car is traveling by turning the steering wheel to the left or right. Most modern vehicles have power steering, which means the physical strength required to alter the angle of the wheels does not fall to the driver. With gentle, subtle movements, you will use the steering wheel to turn corners, drive through bends, change lanes and merge into new lanes of traffic.

You may be able to adjust the angle or height of your steering wheel to an appropriate position relative to your body. In vehicles without adjustable steering wheels, shorter drivers may need a wedge-shaped cushion to raise them to the correct position. Many of the most frequently used vehicle controls are installed immediately around the steering wheel so that drivers can access them without removing their hands from the wheel or averting their eyes from the road for too long.

Car horn

In most vehicles, the car horn is built into the center of the steering wheel. In this position, the horn is easy to access but unlikely to be touched by mistake. The horn is an important tool that you may use to communicate with other road users, but it should only be used to avoid immediate danger. Sound your horn if you must warn another motorist about an impending collision.

If your car has a driver’s side airbag, it will be stored in the center of the steering wheel near the horn. While driving the car, you should keep your chest at least 10 inches away from the middle of the steering wheel and avoid blocking the area with your arms, or you may be injured if the airbag deploys.

Ignition switch or button

Your vehicle will have an ignition key slot or ignition button, directly to the right-hand side of the steering wheel. Due to the advanced theft protection and convenience they provide, keyless ignition systems are becoming more common. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, over 4.4 million new vehicles were produced with keyless ignition systems in 2013 alone, and that number continues to rise each year. If your car has a button rather than a key, the vehicle’s computer will sense when the key fob is inside the vehicle and start the engine when you press the ignition button. In many models of vehicle, the car must be in “park” and the brake pedal must be depressed before the engine will start.

If your car has a standard key ignition switch, you must insert the key and turn it to the appropriate position, based on whether you wish to start the engine or simply activate the car’s electronic systems. Here are the different key positions you will need to learn:

  1. 1

    This is the only position in which the key can be inserted or removed from the ignition. When stopping the car, the transmission must be set to “park” before the key can be turned to the lock position. When the ignition is locked, the steering wheel will not turn and most of the car’s electrical features will not work.

  2. 2

    In this position, the steering wheel will be unlocked but most electronic accessories will still be deactivated.

  3. 3

    Turning the key to this position will activate some of the vehicle’s electrical accessories (e.g. the stereo and lights) without starting the engine.

  4. 4

    All the vehicle’s electrical systems – including instrument panel lights and gauges – will be active when the key is in this position.

  5. 5

    To activate the engine, the key must be in the start position.

In the interest of safety, key ignitions are spring-loaded in the “START” position. This means that you must apply pressure and hold the key in the start position for a few seconds before the engine will start running. Never hold the key in this position once you hear the engine running, or for more than ten seconds at a time, as this can damage the starter motor. If the engine does not start when you turn the key to this position, switch it back to the “OFF” position before trying again.

Windshield wiper lever

A lever that operates the vehicle’s windshield wipers can usually be found protruding from the steering column to the right of the steering wheel. Make sure you know how to use this lever to activate your wipers, change the wiper speed setting and spray wiper fluid onto the windshield, before driving the car. It is quite common for windshield wiper controls to include a twist dial on the end of the lever, which is used to move up and down through wiper speeds.

Multi-function lever

Most vehicles have a multi-function lever protruding from the left-hand side of the steering column. The turn signals, headlights, parking lights and fog lights are typically controlled using this lever. You will usually find the turn signals are activated by pushing the lever up (for the right turn signal) or down (for the left turn signal). When pushed fully up or down, the turn signal will flash continuously until your intended turn is complete, or the driver moves the lever back to neutral. You may be able to briefly activate a turn signal light by pressing the lever slightly up or down.

The car’s headlights are commonly controlled by moving the multi-function lever toward you or away from you; one direction will activate your low beam lights, while the other will turn on the high beams. If you are testing this feature during the day, you can check which is which by looking for the high beam indicator light on the car’s instrument panel.

Steering wheel controls

It is quite common for modern vehicles to feature additional control buttons around the steering wheel itself. These usually operate less important systems like the temperature control, the stereo volume or a hands-free phone system. Having access to these controls on the steering wheel can improve safety, as the driver does not have to remove their hands from the steering wheel to switch radio stations, turn up the heat or perform other non-essential tasks.

Practice using steering column controls

Remember that this article is for general guidance only. As always, your vehicle owner’s manual is the best source to refer to when learning about steering column controls and other vehicle features. As all your vehicle’s electrical systems can be activated without starting the engine, you may wish to practice operating the most important steering column controls – such as the lights and windshield wipers – while the car is safely parked. Doing this will make it easier to find and use these controls while driving, without diverting too much attention from the situation on the road.

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