Bicycle hand signals are not the product of an overprotective parent or a cycling enthusiast. They date to the era of the first automobiles. Before electronic turn signals began appearing on cars in the United States in the 1940s, drivers needed some way to communicate to other drivers that they were turning left or right.
Those same signals remain in use for bicyclists today, but they’re not merely a quaint reminder of the past — they’re law. Bicyclists in California have largely the same rights and responsibilities as an automobile driver, including signaling. More importantly, those signals can help protect a cyclist who will always lose out in a collision with a car. A study from the Governors Highway Safety Association revealed that California led the nation with 338 bicycle fatalities in collisions with motor vehicles between 2010-12.
The 3 Hand Signals
The three basic signals are the same ones most will remember from first learning to ride a bike:
- Left turn: left arm extended straight out to the left side
- Right turn: left arm extended and bent upward at a 90-degree angle
- Braking: left arm extended and bent downward at a 90-degree angle
Why is only the left arm used? Remember the automotive history — the steering wheel is on the left side of the car, and any signals with the right arm would be shielded inside the car and not visible by others. Some cyclists will use the right arm extended for a right turn, but that is not standard practice.
Legally speaking, these are the three signals riders should remember and always use. They are designed to communicate with all other users of the roadway. But safety advocates suggest some other signals for communicating within a group of riders. These include:
- Preparing to brake: closed fist behind the small of the back
- Pay attention: reach around and pat your backside
- Loose gravel: extend your arm at a 45-degree angle downward and wiggle your fingers