I’m sure we all know that you’re supposed to use hand signals when on a bike.  Um... just like everyone knows that you’re supposed to used turn signals when driving a car.  Right?

(When friends visited us from Ireland, they were astounded about American drivers. “They don’t use their indicators!!”  But that wasn’t you they saw, right?  Uh... right?)

I’m also sure that everyone knows the three basic bike hand signals: Arm bent down with palm back, to say you’re slowing or stopping.  Left arm straight out to the left to say you’re turning left or changing lanes leftward.  Right arm straight out to the right for a similar rightward move.  (The old-style right turn signal, with the left arm bent upward, is usually much less effective.)  

So, is that it for hand signals?  Not quite.  Those are the basics, the grade school version.  Yes, you should use them.  But there’s more to life than grade school.  On a recent ride, I noticed that I use a lot of others besides.

Example: I was making my way through the new roundabout in Boardman.  In a roundabout, the vehicle (including bicycle!) in the circle has right of way; those entering are supposed to yield to those in the circle.  But this time, the driver coming from my right looked like he was coming too fast.  Would he yield, or would he barge through?

So I used an “advanced” hand signal.  I put my arm straight out toward him, palm up, in a traffic cop’s “Stop!” signal.  And sure enough, the driver stopped and let me pass.  It worked like a charm.

On the other hand, on that same ride, there were times I gave a “Go” signal.  I passed through a couple of four-way stops, and I know that many motorists worry that the guy on the bike is going to run the stop sign.  So even if they get there first, they wait and wait until they see whether I’ll really stop.  Some even get into “politeness battles,” of the “You go,” “No, you go” variety.  

So what do I do now?  If I see the motorist has the right of way - that is, he either got there first, or we got there simultaneously with him to my right - I wave him through before I even reach the intersection.  When they see my “Go ahead” wave, they move out confidently.  Many wave a “Thank you,” and both of us get through the intersection much more quickly!

Another of my hand signals is my response to a horn honk from behind.  I usually use the same signal for either a friendly warning toot, or for a rude blast: I lift my left hand and give a friendly “Hi, I know you’re there” wave.  (And that’s “friendly” as in using all my fingers!)  I get very few rude blasts, by the way; and most seem to end when the driver sees I’m not flustered.

But rarely, the “incivility” or rudeness does persist.  If I’m riding in a lane too narrow to share - the usual situation - and I get a second blast, my hand signal is a fast, palms up thing that says “What am I supposed to do?  I’m riding here!”  It goes with a big shrug of my shoulders; but it definitely does not go with moving out of their way.  If the lane is too narrow to safely share, I will not share the lane.

On rare occasions, I’ve had some really dumb motorists behind me.  I recall one guy in a big luxury SUV that blared his horn behind me in the right lane, even though there was no traffic at all in the left lane.  He did respond to my “Come around! Pass in the left lane, darn it!” arm signal - delivered, I admit, with some impatience.

Oh, and back to those three basic hand signals (slowing, turning left, turning right).  Sometimes I’ll improve on them by waving that hand for emphasis.  People respond to motion, and a “slowing” signal is more emphatic if my palm is swinging back repeatedly toward them.  It emphasizes a “back off” message.

In some discussions, people have objected to my use of these hand signals.  They’ve said “You don’t have a right to direct traffic. You can’t take control that way.” But what I’m doing isn’t directing traffic, in the police sense.  In every case, it’s just emphasizing what the law already says!  And in many cases, I think motorists appreciate that someone is taking control, taking away the uncertainty about “Who has the right of way here?” or “What’s that guy on the bike going to do?”  Remember, we’ve dealt with many thousands of cars.  We know how it’s supposed to work.  They rarely see a bicyclist, and the poor dears are easily confused.  So we should help them out, by communicating!

And speaking of helping out, there’s one more important hand signal.  It’s a “Thank you!” wave, when a motorist is nicely courteous.  It emphasizes the fact that we’re all just people using the road, trying to get to where we’re going, and hoping for some politeness from our fellow road users.  

The “Thank you!” wave transforms you from one of those lycra-wearing geeks into just a nice person on a bicycle. Use it whenever you can!


- Frank Krygowski, OSW Safety Chairman