Rules of the Biking Road: Hand Signals


Ready to ride!


My family lives in a free-spirited town.  A place where you can’t say I’ve seen it all, but you regularly get a little closer.  Like the other day.  As my favorite barista was handing me a much-needed java, I spotted, making a bee-line across the local highway, a bicyclist pulling a child trailer. Even in my coffee-deprived state I was present enough to think OMG, that’s dangerous, then realized with relief that the trailer did not chauffeur a toddler but an oversized stuffed toy huskie.  An arthritic toy dog, who I swear had a look of frozen terror on his face (remember, coffee withdrawal) as his driver traversed a busy road on his bicycle.  I’m sure he wished he had a helmet.

And how I wished my coffee addiction didn’t beat out the opportunity to snap a photo.

I may need professional help.

Our community is home to the pursuit of year-round road biking (Even in winter, if the sun warms the pavement enough to melt the overnight snowfall, the hard-core are out cycling.)  But with (much) better accuracy than Punxsutawney Phil in February, a sighting of a large stuffy getting royal treatment heralds the warm weather that tells everyone, not just Olympic trainees and wannabes, to pump up those tires and oil those gears.

As we hit the bike lanes and neighborhood streets, safety in doing so becomes a priority, for cyclists and motorists alike.  Helmets (if you’re my daughter, wearing a brain bucket to bike and ride is standard operating procedure…).  Maintaining that 3-foot distance while passing a cyclist.  Simply being watchful of the “other guy.”  And a hand signal or two.

No, not THAT one.  The other ones.  The ones we learned at “Safety Town” as children.  The ones, I confess, I used for maybe a week.  The ones no one else was using so I stopped, too, not wanting to look like a dork.  The ones that can be darn confusing and that can get you into real trouble when used incorrectly.  Even in my cycling-savvy town, it’s rare to see an otherwise appropriately geared-up bicyclist use hand signals, and when they do, sometimes they are dangerously misleading.  I remember a particular instance when a cyclist at an intersection indicated he was turning right, only to make a lefty in front of me when the light turned green.  Peter Cheney, journalist for the Boston Globe, relates a story in which his properly-executed left-turn signal was misunderstood and he almost met his maker.  (The motorist yelled at him, maybe using THAT hand signal?).  Perhaps there are reasons why the hand signals for biking aren’t used; they are counterintuitive and confusing.  But not using signals can be equally dangerous.

So here are the traditional hand signals for cyclists, and a couple clearer alternatives:

Left turn:  extend the left arm straight out from the torso; stretch fingers outward or, better yet, point to the left.


Right turn, traditional:  extend the left arm out from the torso and bend the arm at the elbow 90 degrees so the hand and fingers are pointed upward, the palm facing forward.


Stopping or slowing down:  like an upside-down traditional right-turn signal.  Extend left arm out from torso and bend elbow downward.  In this case, however, turn hand so the palm is facing backward.


Stopping or slowing down, alternative:  extend left arm downward at a 30-degree angle to body, the palm facing backward.


Right turn alternative:  extend right arm out from torso, fingers extended or pointing to the right.  Using the right arm instead of the left to signal a right turn eliminates confusion.


Have a safe summer of cycling!  (And thanks to my oldest for “modeling” for this post!)


[The NHTSA has a downloadable document on cycling hand signals for quick-and-easy reference.  Google “hand signals-NHTSA” and then click on the link with the same name to download the pdf.]


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