You've all seen it. A character, usually a new driver, is put on the wheel of a car, and told to drive. They try to start it, but instead of turning the key, they start up the windshield wipers. Shorthand for incompetent driver. Doesn't always have to be a car, or the windshield wipers, but they are the most common examples.
This is such a recognized trope point that someone with no idea how to drive will set off windscreen wipers in vehicles which have no justifiable reason for having them (such as spaceships or submarines).
An easy trope for a director to use to show incompetence starting a vehicle, because the camera is usually looking through the windshield at the driver already. The windshield wipers are more visual than the driver accidentally starting the radio or the A/C.
If there is some threat involved, this is also a case of My Car Hates Me. If it's the faulty wiring of the car that caused this to happen, rather than the incompetence of the driver, it's a D.I.Y. Disaster. For more comedic driver incompetence, see Had the Silly Thing in Reverse. See also Damn You, Muscle Memory!, which can be responsible for this trope sometimes.
- In a commercial for Twisted Metal 4, Sweet Tooth brings his souped-up ice-cream truck in for service. His midget clown sidekicks aren't all that familiar with the control scheme...
Sweet Tooth: (hits the hood of the truck) Pop the hood.
(A midget inside pauses, then flicks a button...causing the wipers to turn on)
Sweet Tooth: ...the hood?
(The midget turns off the wipers, and flicks another switch...firing a rocket and blowing up a car across the parking lot.)
- Azumanga Daioh: When Yukari arrives at Chiyo's house, her car has its windshield wipers running, on a perfectly sunny day. Needless to say, she's not a very good driver.
- In Re:CREATORS, mech-piloting Selesia Uptiria encounters this when she hijacks a car. Admittedly she has no issue with driving it, but her experience in driving armed warmachines leads her to expect a weapon and is instead greeted with... windshield wipers.
- In the second Sakura Wars OVA, Iris attempts to go to the Dragon Festival after an argument with Reni during rehearsals of The Blue Bird. When she sees the boat owned by Kosuke Dan and his gang, she steals it and tries to commandeer it. Unfortunately, she doesn't know how to work the throttle or steer it. She ends up crashing into a few boats and when it is about to crash into a water control gate, Leni shows up just in time and commandeers it in her place to prevent any further disaster.
- Bill Cosby also touched on this trope in an old routine, commenting how the sound and rhythm of the errantly engaged wipers seem to mock the driver (dumb guy...dumb guy...dumb guy...).
- Bill Hicks has a variation on this theme. While talking about the first Gulf War, he compares trying to aim a Scud missile to an Iraqi driving a Buick, poorly enough to land it in the ocean. The sinking Iraqi then tries to escape the Scud, and, trying everything, activates the wipers.
- The '60s spoken word comedy show The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart includes a skit entitled The Driving Instructor. The female driving student turns on the windscreen wipers while attempting to start the car. Bob Newhart later said that he didn't intend to offend anyone with it, and if he had wanted to, he would have made the driver Chinese.
- The Bolt Chronicles: Penny's disastrous first driving experience in "The Car" shows her making several mistakes, including this one. After stalling the car out, she turns on the windshield wipers instead of cranking the ignition for a restart.
- Batman: Assault on Arkham. When Harley Quinn is attempting to pilot a Blackhawk helicopter, she goes looking for the "gas pedal" and starts randomly pressing buttons on the console. She gets this trope along with several other functions, including launching anti-heatseeker flares.
- In Madagascar 2 with the penguins' first attempt in hotwiring a safari Jeep.
- A Wiper Start is only the first of many things to go wrong with Mike's New Car on the Monsters, Inc. DVD.
- The Rescuers: In the finale, when Penny tries to start up Madame Medusa's swampmobile during an escape attempt, among Bernard the mouse instructing her to "Advance the spark," she activates the horn instead of the spark lever, blaring the Model T-style klaxon in Bernard's ear. Justified as she is actually too young to operate such a vehicle.
- The title character of WALLE does a Wiper Start as one of many things he tries in an attempt to shut off the self-destruct sequence of a spaceship lifepod.
- In Critters, when the alien bounty hunters first try to drive the abandoned police car, they succeed in honking the horn, blasting a hole in the roof with the mount-locked shotgun, and finally getting it started in reverse. Naturally, the second time they use it, the driver looks over his shoulder in expectation that it'll go backwards again, only to shift it into first and drive forwards.
- In Diamonds Are Forever James Bond does this twice. First, when he jumps into the moon rover, he doesn't know how to start it. Second, when he hops into the crane lowering Blofeld's escape sub, he doesn't know how to operate it and drops the sub into the water.
- In another Robin Williams film, Good Morning, Vietnam, his sidekick Garlick has a Running Gag where he keeps trying to start the motor of an already running jeep.
- Gleaming the Cube: Lawndale tries to make a getaway in a stolen police car, but his driver has never driven a police car before. The driver has trouble figuring out how to work the lights and sirens, turning on the wipers instead.
- The Film of the Book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had a Wiper Start on an escape pod for a space ship. Justified, as Arthur is the one driving.
- The Hot Rock: When Kelp, who is driving an unfamiliar car (in the novel it is explicitly a stolen car), attempts to flag down Dortmunder, he accidentally turns on the wipers, and drives after Dortmunder with the wipers on and the horn blaring.
- In Independence Day, Russell Casse, now sobered-up, accidentally starts a missile launch sequence while preparing for takeoff. After frantically stopping it, he mutters to himself "I picked a hell of a day to quit drinking...".
- In The Film of the Book Jumanji, Robin Williams' character accidentally opens the sun roof of a car when trying to start it. Played for suspense rather than comedy, as this almost lets giant poisonous mosquitoes into the vehicle.
- Knives Out: After the will is read, Marta rushes out of the house; pursued and badgered by the Thrombey family. She jumps in her car but is so flustered that she cannot get it started. She does, however, turn on the wipers.
- My Fellow Americans does this to emphasize that neither of the two former presidents has driven themselves anywhere in years.
- In Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Anakin does a literal Wiper Start.
- Used for dramatic effect in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Charles activates the windshield wipers of the neighbor's car while he's trying to figure out driving it and then crashes it into the cars parked around it. The sequence is to show us how much his mental state has deteriorated.
- In Scarecrow Slayer, when Mary is abandoned at Caleb's farm, she finds the keys to his truck and attempts to start it. She eventually gets it going, but in the process turns on the wipers.
- Star Trek:
- Sulu does a Wiper Start in a helicopter in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Of course he then becomes such a skilled chopper pilot that he can accurately slot plexiglass slabs into the hatch of an invisible spaceship.
- In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Chekov and Scotty have a similar moment trying to pilot their captured Klingon ship: "Where's the damned anti-matter inducer?"
- In Top Secret! Omar Sharif's character is in a car put into a car crusher. He survives, the car parts crushed into a cube around him. When Hillery tries to get the ballet tickets out of his glove compartment she activates the wipers, causing them to hit him in the nose and squirt washer fluid in his face.
- Watchmen: The flamethrower on Nite Owl's ship is mistaken for a cigarette lighter by Laurie. According to Dan, The Comedian also almost made that mistake back in the day, and when Dan and Laurie save the tenants of a burning building, one of them almost uses the button to light his blunt.
- During the chase scene near the end of What's Up, Doc?, as Judy tries and fails to drive the Beetle she and Howard are in off a pier and onto a ferry pulling into the ocean (it really makes sense in context... kinda), she manages to turn on the water squirters to clean the windshield and the radio (which promptly starts blaring unfitting country music). Given Judy's track record throughout the movie, this is meant to highlight her terrible luck more than incompetence.
- Exaggerated to ridiculous proportions in Wrongfully Accused. Leslie Neilsen's character tries to hotwire a car. Not only does this cause the wipers to go off, but the lights flash, the alarm blares, the radio blasts "La Bamba", the horn plays "La Cucaracha", and the car constantly bounces up and down on its suspension. He somehow manages to drive down the highway in this state.
- Used by Costa-Gavras in Z. Yves Montand's character suffers heavy head wounds, and a passing car is summoned to bring him to hospital. The driver demonstrates utter incompetence by executing the trope. In the next scene in the prosecutor's office, it is revealed that he is in reality the general's personal driver, and that the unmarked car belonged to the police. He was in fact trying to sabotage the victim's rescue.
- Bait Car: A car thief starts the wipers while trying to figure out how to put a vehicle in gear. The cops watching nearby comment that the wipers (and turn signals) are working properly.
- Marcia Brady does a this on her road test on The Brady Bunch. Slightly different, because she's actually a good driver, just extremely nervous. She also manages to cause the convertible top to go up and down before starting the car.
- On Canada's Worst Driver, a contestant accidentally popped the hood while trying to start his car.
- In one of the episodes of Eastenders in which Dot is learning to drive, she turns on the windscreen wipers by mistake while trying to use the indicator.
- Inverted in Full House where Stephanie is in Joey's new car and tries to turn on the radio, only she starts it and backs the car into the kitchen, thinking the "R" on the gear shift meant "radio".
- Hiro in Heroes does a literal Wiper Start when trying to start his and Ando's car in Las Vegas.
- In How I Met Your Mother, when Ted tries to teach Barney how to drive Barney panics and turns on the radio when he wants to stop (... when going three miles an hour, to avoid hitting a dog about fifty feet away).
- A Wiper Start happened to Clegg in an episode of Last of the Summer Wine when asked to drive strangers' cars in Foggy's attempt to set up American-style valet parking.
- Red Dwarf used a literal Wiper Start several times on a spacecraft.
- A female designer does this on Restaurant Makeover when she tries to drive Igor's huge delivery truck. Igor has to get a member of the camera crew to drive it.
- Invoked on Top Gear by Richard Hammond, while hypnotised into believing he didn't know how to operate a carnote .
Richard: The handbrake release is a small black plastic lever down here, to my left. The bonnet release is a small black plastic lever down here, to my left, about an inch away. You can see what's coming? The routine is start engine... Into gear...
- And when he reviewed the Cadillac CTS:
Cut outside to show the hood of the car popping open.
- Also encountered when Clarkson reviewed the Ferrari 458 Italia. All the buttons for things like wipers, lights, indicators, and so on are on the steering wheel because what's behind the wheel instead are paddles for changing gear. Except steering wheels move, so the switches you need are never where you thought they were. Clarkson aims for the lights, but does this trope instead.
- In the American version's big rig episode, Tanner accidentally activates his truck's windshield wipers while trying to figure out how the mechanics of driving it. Especially amusing since Tanner is a professional racecar driver and is usually the most proficient with the vehicles on the show. Of course, he still ended up winning the most challenges in the episode.
- In the LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser trailer (which parodies the actual The Force Awakens teaser trailer), Poe Dameron flips various switches on his X-Wing, activating the wipers, the radio (playing the "Cantina Song", of course), a toaster, some sort of display that swings out and hits him in the head, and the seat adjustment.
- One preview of the game Steel Battalion, which came with a specialized $200 controller to simulate driving a Humongous Mecha, mentioned that the previewer—after being fired upon—panicked and hit a bunch of buttons, ejecting the fuel tank and turning on the windshield wipers.
- Bree starts the wipers in the lonelygirl15 episode "Learning To Drive".
- In Macross Abridged, Claudia accidentally shoots down a Zentraedi diplomatic envoy while trying to find the air conditioner, and triggering the SDF-1's Superdimensional Converging Beam Weapon instead.
- There is a Metroid/Star Fox/Futurama crossover short called Metroid Confusion, in which Space Pirates stole an Arwing from Fox. Every button on the ship plays Whalers On The Moon from Futurama...and they are trying to Grandma's delicious cookies back from the jerk, Samus.
- Happened to Pat of Two Best Friends Play thanks to Deadly Premonition's weird driving controls, when he was trying to find the handbrake. Funnily enough, they had just been talking about the D-pad being the wiper.
- A variation shows up in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Beware the Creeper" — the Creeper is trying to turn on the wipers (to get rid of junk the Joker is throwing at him from the car ahead) and launches the rear missiles. To be fair, he's driving the Joker's car, the controls of which are more than slightly non-standard.
- Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: In one episode, Buzz is trying to take control of a derelict ship. The first button he presses activates the turn signal. He then deploys the cup holder. After pressing every other button and failing to accomplish anything (although he does make the wipers work), he finds the crew. Turns out the "cup holder" is actually the steering wheel.
- Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers: Shortly after meeting Chip and Dale and seeing Monty for the first time since she was a child, Gadget lights the fuse to the dynamite that will propel their airplane out of the human-sized craft... if she can remember which control operates that craft's skylight. She finds it, of course, with scant few seconds to spare, but not before activating the wipers.
- Fry turns on the coffee maker on the Planet Express ship when trying to start it up in "Space Pilot 3000".
- When Zapp Brannigan tries to pilot an orbital restaurant he activates wipers, opens and closes windows, and turns on the turn signal. And then he manages to crash the restaurant into a planet.
Zapp: You win again, gravity!
- In a memorable scene in Justice League, Batman, Martian Manhunter, and The Flash are trying to figure out the controls of an alien space ship on the front steps of Wayne Manor. J'onn admits that he doesn't know how to fly the device, and The Flash suggests pressing buttons. The first one activates the ship's weapons systems, blowing a large hole in the side of the mansion and irking Batman.
Batman: That's. Not. Helping.
- Mighty Ducks: The Animated Series: The first time Nosedive tries to fly the Aerowing in order to help the rest of the team, it ends in this.
- In the Phineas and Ferb episode "The Secret of Success", Candace tries to figure out how to steer Phineas and Ferb's all-terrain vehicle (while it's in motion). At first all she manages to do is stuff like turning the radio on and off and turning on the windshield wipers.
- The Secret Saturdays: In "The Atlas Pin", Fiskerton attempts to pilot the airship by randomly mashing buttons. He succeeds in turning on the seat massager and launching a missile.
- In the VeggieTales video "Larry-Boy and the Fib from Outer Space'', Alfred is trying to give Larry-Boy directions to work the Larrymobile's new gadgets. Not only did he not have time to label them, he forgot which was which himself, leading to Larry-Boy first activating the wipers, then a horn that plays "Dixie", when he was trying to find the flying mode.
- In an episode of Wacky Races, Sergeant Blast ends up in the Compact Pussycat (Penelope Pitstop's car). Trying to stop it, he activates the controls that apply face powder and lipstick. Granted these are not standard controls in a car, but it does raise the question of why he thought the brakes would be activated by a button on the dashboard.
- Will happen if a car was last driven in the rain. If you don't turn the key all the way, only the electrical system comes on, including the wipers.
- Some cars (particularly with automatic transmission), have column mounted shifters, generally to the right of the wheel (on a left-hand-drive car). Other cars have the shifter on the floor between the front seats, and place the wiper controls in the exact same location on a stick behind the right side of the wheel. When switching from the first type to the second, some drivers will start the car without incident, but then attempt to put the car into gear without looking and turn on the wipers.
- The difference between cars designed for right-hand or left-hand drive from scratch and have the controls in the standard places verses those that were cheaply converted for local conditions by simply moving the entire steering column across. The light switches and the wiper controls end up the opposite ways round, much to a driver's annoyance.
- Other cars, such as the seventh generation of Buick Skylarks, literally have the wiper controls right in front of the wheel-mounted shifter, and the wiper controls pivot up and down, much like the shifter, and the two can be confused sometimes.
- Slight variant: many Mercedes-Benz sedans have the light controls as a knob on the dash next to the steering column. Many other models of cars (Honda Elements, for one) have the light controls on the turn signal— which is where the Mercedes has the wiper controls.
- And older Ford models had the horn (!) on the turn signal controls, leading to many interesting combinations of the two. The DeLorean did this as well (you push it in to honk).
- Since most ambulances in the United States are Ford E350s, many EMTs and Paramedics will end up doing this when trying to turn on the headlights, because they have the windshield wiper control on the left hand side where the light controls are on most regular cars. Or do the inverse when their (often 24 hour) shift is over and they're going home in their own cars.
- In some parts of Japan, this trope is something of a running gag among the locals. Cars in Japan are right-hand drive, with the windshield-wiper and turn-signal stalks reversed relative to the United States, so American drivers unfamiliar with this setup will very frequently hit the wipers when trying to activate the turn signal. If you're watching a car brake coming into an intersection and the wipers come on instead of the turn signal, it's a dead ringer that they're new to the area.
- And if you've driven in Japan for years and travel to the United States, you'll do it there too!
- The Airbus A320 plane start up checklist specifically says to check the wipers are off before powering up the aircraft. It is in the checklist preliminary checks for a reason, so you know someone has done this with one of the planes at least once.