Every day, we use hand signals and gestures without even realizing it.
You might wave at another driver for letting you into their lane, which is another way of saying “thank you.” You might nod, shrug, or gesture while talking, which shows what you’re thinking and may help put it into words. We even use emojis while texting or instant messaging with friends and family.
Universal signals like these help convey our thoughts and intentions, and they can even help translate words to people who may be hard of hearing or speak another language. It’s become obvious that using gestures in our everyday lives is not just born out of habit but out of necessity.
The same can be said for using hand signals while doing important activities, like driving.
What are Hand Turning Signals?
In transportation, hand turning signals refer to the gestures that a cyclist uses, which indicate their intentions to other drivers in traffic. Since bicycles don’t come with brake lights or turning signals, cyclists use hand signals to tell motorists when they plan to turn left, turn right, or come to a stop.
However, cyclists aren’t the only ones who use them: Motorists in cars and trucks, moped drivers, and motorcycles can also use these gestures. While on the road, relying on these motions is essential, especially since failure to use proper signaling is a major cause of American roadway accidents.
So while it’s true that hand gestures like these are most common among cyclists, they are still considered part of traffic — and the United States has a law that says hand signals are required of any motorist who does not have functioning signal lights.
Where Did Hand Turning Signals Come From?
Before cars had built-in blinkers, drivers relied on hand turning signals to tell other motorists in traffic if they were turning or coming to a stop.
It wasn’t until 1907 when a man named Percy Douglas-Hamilton applied for a patent (Patent Number 912831) for a device “indicating the intended movements of vehicles.” These lights were shaped like hands because most motorists were used to reading hand signals.
In addition to this patent, there were many inventions, ideas, and patents that hoped to introduce an automated signaling mechanism to automobiles. For example, the “Trafficator,” an invention created in 1921, used huge mechanical arms that swung out horizontally.
Obviously, the Trafficators did not last, although they were around for quite a while. In 1939, American car manufacturer Buick introduced factory-installed flashing turn signals as a safety feature. At the time, it was known as the “Flash-Way Directional Signal.”
Although automatic turn signals quickly took over the automobile market, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Department of Transportation (DoT) kept the three basic hand signals in the books.
What are the 3 Hand Signals for Driving?
There are three main hand signals that every motorist and cyclist should become familiar with: Left turn, right turn, and slowing down/stopping.
To indicate a left turn, extend your left arm out sideways with all your fingers extended. Alternatively, you can put your left arm out sideways and use your index finger to point left instead.
Since drivers in the U.S. sit on the left side of the car, indicating a right turn is a little tricky and takes getting used to. If you’re planning to turn right, extend your left arm out sideways, bent upwards 90 degrees angle at the elbow. Your hand should be pointing up with your palm facing forward.
There is also an alternative right turn, where you can extend your right arm straight with all fingers extended or use your index finger to point right. However, this is typically reserved for cyclists, motorists, or motorists with passengers since this requires your right arm.
When slowing down or coming to a stop, extend your left arm out sideways and bend your arm downwards at a 90-degree angle, with your hand pointing down and your palm facing backward. (Think of this as the reverse angle of the right turn signal.)
Tips on Proper Hand Signal Technique
As they say, practice makes perfect. Here’s how to engage in proper hand signal technique while out on the road:
Tip #1: Use obvious arm movements
Distance and speed play significant roles in how people communicate with one another on the road. That’s why not every driver around you will be paying attention to your arm movements. Instead, you’ll need to make big, obvious movements when signaling to those behind you. Be sure to extend your arm all the way out with your elbow out of the window frame.
Tip #2: Signal 100 to 200 feet before turning or changing lanes
Most state laws require that the driver uses blinkers or hand signals at least 100 feet before turning or changing lanes.
However, keep in mind that some states, like Indiana, require that you signal at least 200 feet before making a turn. Always check with your state’s guidelines and laws before going out on the road.
Tip #3: Always prioritize safety
Before extending your arm, check your rearview mirror and side mirror to avoid hitting anything. You don’t want to suffer a hand or arm injury while behind the wheel.
Preventing an injury or accident is also why you should only make planned turns. Avoid situations like making last-minute decisions or cutting over into different lanes. In instances like this, it’s best to just stay in the lane and turn around when appropriate or try another route.
Tip #4: Don’t use hand signals at night
You cannot rely on hand signals at night while driving a vehicle. Visibility at night is already extremely low, which accounts for 50% of all traffic deaths. So if your blinkers or brake lights aren’t working, do everything you can to avoid driving at night until they’ve been repaired.
The only exception to using hand signals at night is if you’re a cyclist. However, it’s still dangerous. Be sure to wear reflective gear or have lights on your person at all times.
Are Hand Turn Signals Legal and When Should You Use Them?
When you’re driving in your car and making a turn, it’s almost second nature to put your hand on the lever that turns on your blinker. But even so, it’s essential to understand basic signals for driving too.
Per the Uniform Vehicle Code, you are allowed and encouraged to use hand signals when your lights are malfunctioning or broken — especially since malfunctioning lights like these are a leading cause of vehicle injuries and fatalities.
Additionally, the NHTSA estimates that the misuse of brake lights can cause up to 20 to 30% of rear-end accidents. So, in the event of a broken taillight or blinker lights, knowing how to use hand signals (and when to use them) are important for your safety.
Here’s when to use them appropriately.
When Your Lights Aren’t Working
Every U.S. state has rules that require you to signal your driving intentions to others. So, no matter where you live, signals are required when turning or changing lanes. This also means you must use hand signals if your blinkers or brake lights are malfunctioning.
The best way to avoid using hand signals is to stay on top of your vehicle maintenance, which includes ensuring that all of your car lights are working correctly. Keep in mind that car light bulbs have an average lifespan of anywhere between 14 months and 42 months, depending on how often you use them.
When You’re Riding a Motorcycle
Motorcyclists have a whole set of hand signals that are understood by other riders. These signals are essential for those who are riding with a large group or have damaged signal lights. Some motorcyclists even prefer using hand signals in addition to their blinkers, which is a wise decision since riding a motorcycle can be very dangerous.
Some of the most critical motorcycle hand signals are right turn, left turn, speed up, slow down, stop, and hazard awareness. The “hazard awareness” signal is especially crucial when riding with a group. It tells everybody else to avoid debris in the road or a pothole that can damage the bike or even cause an accident.
When You’re Riding a Bicycle
Most bikes don’t come with built-in blinkers or brake lights, which is why most cyclists hand signals for driving like these are most used among cyclists.
Like motorcyclists, there are a few more complicated hand signals that are generally understood by other riders. In any case, it’s critical to know at least the main three hand signals because using them in traffic helps reduce the risk of any accidents.
Even if you are diligent about your car — like taking care of your battery and ensuring your bulbs are always up-to-date — knowing basic hand signals is an essential skill to help prevent accidents and traffic.
To refresh, here are the three signals for driving that every motorist should know:
- Left Turn: Extend your left arm out sideways with all your fingers extended or point left with your index finger.
- Right Turn: Extend your left arm bent upwards at the elbow with your palm facing forward.
- Slow Down/Stop: Extend your left arm bent downwards at the elbow with your palm facing backward.
In addition to knowing these hand signals, one of the best ways to stay safe on the road is by taking a defensive driving course, which highlights important skills and teaches you how to how to react to driving situations efficiently and safely.
The best part? Taking a class can even decrease your insurance rates. Learn more about defensive driving with DriveSafe Online today, named the “Best Overall Online Defensive Driving Course” by Investopedia.