How To: Fine Points of Using Hand Signals

guide to using hand signals

Last week’s post, Bring Back Polite: The Case for Hand Signals, reflected on how these courteous, but all-too-rare gestures by bicyclists help improve communication and safety among all users of New York City streets. Today’s focus is a guide to using hand signals — or, the art of extending an arm to make your intentions known.

In particular, the existence of two different ways to indicate a right turn can sometimes be a source of confusion. Here’s how to make sure you don’t get your signals crossed:

Left turn: Extend your arm straight out to the left.

Right turn: There are two methods of signaling a right turn: Extending the left arm with elbow bent at a 90-degree angle, basically to form an L. Or, simply extending the right arm (see diagram above).

Both are included in the New York Department of Motor Vehicles’ Driver’s Manual and Study Guide.

But Tim Haney, education volunteer manager at Bike New York, the organization that promotes cycling through education and special events, says that signaling with the right hand tends to be less awkward for the bicyclist and also less confusing for motorists. In addition, the layout of New York City streets and infrastructure favors the right hand extension:

“The reason for the 90-degree left-hand signal is because your left arm is more visible to motorists than your right arm,” says Haney. “But this assumes you are riding on the right side of a two lane road. With so many one-way streets in NYC and bike lanes being installed on the left side of the road, it doesn’t make as much sense to use a 90-degree left hand signal.”

Make eye contact:  This establishes a human connection between you and oncoming motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians.

Go big: Finally, when it comes to traveling with motor vehicles and making yourself understood, going big is better.

In response to last week’s post, which he spotted via hat-tip on Streetsblog, Adam Mansky, a long-time bicycle commuter in New York City, responded with a Here! Here! and made the case for gesticulating with gusto, expletives optional:

Between my flailing arms, my pedaling feet, and my relentless whistling, my daily ride is essentially an extended dance.  I wildly point where I’m moving, when I’m stopping (especially for bikes behind me), which corner I’m going to be rounding.  I particularly love to get a driver’s attention by pointing to the lane I’m shifting into. I give lots of thumbs-ups; or, from time to time, one other extended finger.  When a car enters a two-way intersection from the opposite direction and looks to turn across my path, I shake my head, mouth expletives, stare into the whites of the driver’s eyes, and raise my hand in the halt sign.

The bottom line: Using hand signals, as exuberantly as needed, not only makes those around you aware of your intentions, but also helps you feel more empowered and self-confident on the streets.

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