On Signaling

Safety Corner logoby Paul Schimek

Signaling is often described as one of the most important things bicyclists must do—other than wearing a helmet, of course. “Always use hand signals when turning or stopping,” says a bike law pamphlet distributed by the Cambridge Police, just to give one example. Surprisingly, this is not always good advice. Neither is it a good summary of law.

There are four types of signaling that all bicyclists must know: pointing out hazards, slowing or stopping, moving across the road, and indicating intent to turn.

When riding in a group, point out road hazards that riders behind might not notice, or can’t see because you are in the way. Point to, or call out, anything that could make a rider go down, including holes, bumps, parallel-slot drain grates, major debris, or deep sand in the path of travel.

Also give a warning if you are slowing or stopping unexpectedly in the road. You can put a hand out, palm back, to signal slowing, but hard braking requires both hands. In that case, call out “stopping” instead. When approaching a red signal, stop, or yield sign, it is generally not necessary to signal, since traffic behind can see the reason you are slowing or stopping. When you need to stop for another reason, it’s best to pull completely off the road into a driveway or parking lane.

Bicyclists have an additional use for the slowing signal: to indicate to a following driver that it is not safe to pass. For example, on a narrow two-lane rural road with a blind right curve, neither you nor a following motorist can see if there is oncoming traffic. Manage this situation by riding in the center of the right lane, so you are visible from as far back as safely possible, and making a slow signal with your left hand if a vehicle comes up behind you. When you can see that it is safe for the driver behind you to pass, you can merge back to the right and wave the driver by.

It’s sometimes necessary to signal when you want to move across the road. Any time you need to get into position at an intersection, avoid an obstacle, or pass a car or bicycle, you must first look behind to make sure you will not get into anyone else’s way. If you look back and see it’s clear, you can (and should) go immediately. If it’s not clear, often you can wait for a gap, then look again and go when it’s clear. Much of the time you can make your moves across the road in this manner—without ever giving a hand signal.

But if you need to get into a line of traffic, you must negotiate your way in. This involves signaling your request to get in the way, and receiving a positive signal in response. Often merely looking back is a sufficient signal to communicate your intent. If not, point in the direction you want to go while looking back at the driver. If a motorist slows, waves, or flashes headlights, you know it’s safe to go. If the first motorist is not cooperative, wait for the next.

The final type of signaling is to communicate your intended direction at intersections. The point of signaling is to notify other drivers in advance of your movement. Signaling while you are turning serves no purpose and makes it harder to control your bicycle. Signaling turns is mostly a courtesy: it lets others know that you will not get in the way, as when you are turning into a side street where another driver is waiting to pull out. The most important safety function of signaling left turns is to tell following traffic that it’s safe to pass on your right, and not safe to pass on your left.

Make your left turn signal by pointing left. Make your right turn signal by pointing right. You don’t need to look back, because you are already in the correct position to make the turn (right side of road for right turns, near the center of the road for left turns). But don’t use a hand signal if you need your hands to control the bike, such as when you are approaching an intersection on a descent. You have a backup signal: because a bicycle is much narrower than a travel lane, your position on the road is a pretty good indication of your intent.

Hand signals are especially useful when navigating traffic circles. If you are not taking the first exit, merge left and signal left. This advises following traffic that it’s okay to pass on the right. Then when you pass the exit before the one you want, merge right and signal right. The signal will encourage entering drivers to yield to you (although they should be facing a yield sign).

Signaling turns advises other bicyclists in your group of the route ahead and is particularly important if you are not following arrows. The lead rider signals each turn well in advance and the following riders also signal to acknowledge the lead rider’s signal. This two-way communication works best if the lead rider has a rear-view mirror in which to view the following riders’ signals. Such signaling is also a welcome courtesy on arrowed rides. If you point the way on a club ride, though, make sure that you have identified the turn correctly, or you might become the subject of post-ride folklore!
If you ever need to make a hand signal when driving a car you can only do so with your left hand, so you use it even to make a right turn (by raising it and pointing the thumb to the right). On a bike, you can use your right hand to signal a right turn, and it’s much more likely to be understood. Massachusetts permits bicyclists to signal a right turn with the right hand.

Which signaling is actually important for safety? Pointing out road hazards is probably the most important, since these are the number one cause of bicyclist injuries. When moving across the road, it’s the looking and waiting that’s most important. When turning, it’s the correct intersection positioning that’s most important. And in some cases unnecessarily using a hand signal can make you less safe by giving you less stability on the bike.

But doesn’t the law require you to make a signal before every turn? Actually, in Massachusetts, a signal is only required “before stopping . . . or making any turning movement which would affect the operation of any other vehicle.” If you look behind and see no one coming close, there is no need to signal because no other vehicle could be affected. (Rhode Island’s law is similar.)

After automatic turn signals became standard on motor vehicles, many states, but not Massachusetts, added a requirement to make the turn signal continuously beginning 100 or 300 feet in advance of a turn. This rule clearly should not apply to bicyclists, who often need both hands to control their bicycle. Many states, including New Hampshire, specifically exempt bicyclists from the continuous signaling requirement.

Finally, avoid using other sorts of hand signals to indicate displeasure, no matter how poorly others may treat you. It’s best not to escalate a traffic mistake into a confrontation. Instead, get a plate number and description of the vehicle and the driver, and report it to police.

Safety is about choices. What choices will you make?

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