The other night, when my husband I rode home from dinner on Citi Bikes, I noticed something I rarely see on New York City streets. My husband signaled an upcoming turn by extending his left hand. And it made me wonder why more people don’t use hand signals for cycling safety.
So rare is this polite and meaningful gesture on New York City streets, that I register it, as I did in this case, only as an exception. Maybe use of hand signals has gone the way of so many other small courtesies. But there’s a strong case for bringing it back, and promoting it: Signaling a turn or lane change is a low-tech, free complement to the Vision Zero era, a small contribution that we can all make to improving street safety.
“On the most basic level, the simple step every New Yorker can take to make Vision Zero a reality is communicate better,” says Caroline Samponaro, senior director of campaigns and organizing at the bicycling and walking advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives. “When you are biking you get to make eye contact easily, and using your hands to signal your turns makes everyone safer.”
Extending an arm lets everybody who shares the road with you know where you’re going — from the motorist behind you, to the cyclist in the bike lane to the pedestrian in the crosswalk with whom you share a green light on a turn.
When you signal, each can anticipate your actions and react accordingly. The car can (it is hoped) give you leeway when you need to take the lane. A cyclist is less likely to run up your back wheel or to collide with you as you steer across a greenway. The pedestrian knows you’re coming and is less likely to act unpredictably.
Same as a Car, But Not
According to New York State law, bicyclists are required to signal turns, just as motorists are. But the law also recognizes differences based on the nature of traveling on two wheels, notes Steve Vaccaro of Vaccaro & White, a law firm specializing in representing cyclists.
“A bicyclist is not required to hold the turn signal for a full 100 feet prior to turning, as motorists are required to do,” he says. “That’s because of the risk of falling or losing control of a bicycle while steering with one hand, which is unique to operation of a bicycle.”
Vaccaro adds that the precise distance for which a bicyclist must signal prior to turning has never been determined.
Safety in the Urban Ecosystem
In the world of sport cycling, beginners in the pace line are taught to use hand signals not only for turns, but also for slowing, stopping and communicating road hazards. The integrity of the whole line of riders depends on this because inattention could cause a crash. Certainly the same concept applies to the interconnected world of city street users.
Children, youth and adults who take bicycle safety classes also learn the importance of telegraphing intentions.
“We teach hand signals at our Bike Basics class, which is the second level in our programs after our Learn-to-Ride classes,” says Tim Haney, education volunteer manager at Bike New York, the organization that promotes cycling through education and special events.
“We also teach this to all students in our youth after-school and summer camp programs before we take them out on group rides,” adds Haney.
On a broader scale, the imperative for courtesy and safety might suggest some straightforward public service messaging on bicycling basics.
Demonstrating Street Smarts
In my own experience, signaling feels like a gesture of confidence. It alerts those around you that you are aware and engaged as you navigate New York City streets. I’m always grateful to the riders around me who show courtesy and street smarts in this way.
On city streets, as in life in general, more communication rather than less tends to benefit everyone. Using hand signals is one among many ways that New Yorkers can be more courteous to one another, while also promoting safety – at every turn.
NEXT WEEK: The Finer Points of Using Hand Signals in NYC