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Mixed Signals

More and more states are passing new laws to protect cyclists. In most cases part of the package gives the cyclist the option of signaling a right turn with either their left or right arm. I have not heard any protest from cyclists over this until now.

On a Portland, Oregon blog named Two Five Fix, was this quote:

Please stop pressing the issue to pass the right-hand right-turn turn signal! There are three standardized hand signals that have been in place for years. By changing the rules for cyclist, you are saying "we get special treatment" and causing more us-them mentality. Motorists can't signal a right hand turn with their right hand so why should cyclists? Maybe we can start using blue lights on the back of our bikes too?

When I came to the United States thirty years ago, I accepted the rules, laws and customs of this country. I would ride my bike on the opposite side of the road, I would even refer to “chips” as French Fries and eat them with ketchup instead of vinegar, but I would be damned if I would signal a right turn with my left arm.

It seemed ludicrous to me to signal my intention to turn right by pointing my left forearm towards the sky.

The driver of a motor vehicle can only signal with one arm, and for those who drive on the right it is the left arm.

But people on bicycles, or for that matter motorcycles, mopeds, or scooters have their whole body exposed and both arms can be clearly seen.

So when I arrived on these shores in 1979, I continued to do as I had done all my life, and signaled a right turn with my right arm. To do any different may have been the law, but to me went against all common sense and logic.

I am not 100% sure, but I believe in almost every country in the world, cyclists and motorcyclists use their left arm to signal left, and their right to signal right; America is the exception.

Even to this day I am still caught offgaurd driving behind a motorcyclist on the freeway, when he raises his left left arm with clenched fist, like some militant biker power salute, then suddenly swerves right into the next lane. I am left to wonder, doesn't pointing in the direction you intend to go register in the human brain a split second faster.

Anyway, I have for the last thirty years; riding my bike on the roads of these United States always signaled a right turn with my right arm, pointing to the right. I may have been breaking the law, but there has never been any confusion as to the direction I intended to go.

However, it became a rebellion that no one noticed or even cared about; I was never locked up, or threatened with deportation. In thirty years no one has ever question why I chose to signal that way; not law enforcement, motorist, or cyclist.

The writer of the above comment is concerned that motorists will see different hand signals for cyclists as “special treatment.” It is my opinion that the motoring public could care less about hand signals. When do you last see a motor vehicle driver give one? Heck, many are too lazy to lift one finger to operate the mechanical turn signals.

I believe hand signals for motorists are obsolete. The average American motorist steers with his left hand, if he suddenly had to signal with it, he would be totally flummoxed. The right hand holds the cell phone, the coffee cup, or is used to communicate displeasure with other road users.

Be grateful that many states are giving cyclists the option to signal either way, with the left or right arm. Those used to indicating a right turn with their left arm their entire life, can continue to do so and do not have to learn a new procedure. And foreign nonconformists like me finally become law abiding citizens.


Reader Comments (9)

Totally agree with you. Auto hand signals are an artifact from when cars did not come equipped with turn signals. Most of us can't even remember those days now, so most drivers, especially the younger ones, are not going to know what that left arm bent and pointed skyward is signifying.

Since I resumed riding as an adult about 10 years ago, I've always pointed right with my right arm, and I've never been told that I was doing something improper. Many people really appreciate that you're signalling at all, and in an unambiguous manner.

April 16, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdb

I don't believe you've considered the drivers in several large cities I've been in, when you say that they don't signal with their left hands.
I've personally seen many, many people in New York, for example, signal with their left hands........they usually wave them outside the window with their middle finger extended....but I don't believe they're signaling a turn. The same signal made with the right hand wouldn't be as visible, so it's probably safer to do it with your left.

As for hand signals on the bike, I believe the stop signal is the one that confuses the most people. I've used both signals for right turns, depending on which hand I need on the handlebars. I do like to have my hand on the front brake lever when I'm slowing for a turn, and that's on my right, so I'll signal with my left hand.

To be honest, in Boston, where I live, signaling is a rare occasion....especially by motorists. The people here are so cerebral that they're convinced you can read what they loosely refer to as their minds. My signals probably confuse them.

April 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterYohann M

A motorcyclist needs to keep his right hand on the throttle and close to the front brake. That's why they signal both left and right turns with their left hand.

April 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike


I think a good reason for signaling right turn with the rider's left hand is visibility. Consider that drivers in the U.S. sit on the the left side of the car, and riders are most likely on the right side of the road when they signal, it makes sense to signal with the left hand for visibility reasons. While I always signal with my left hand when riding, I see so few riders signaling that I am not going to quibble about riders signaling with their right hand.

April 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterC. Lin

Dave, I just left the following comment on the TwoFiveFix Blog:
Who is advocating for "allowing" right arm signals? It is already in the Oregon Bicyclist Manual: www.oregon.gov/ODOT/HWY/BIKEPED/docs/bike_manual_06.pdf
For a while I always tried to stick with the left arm, right turn signal, but years of shoulder injuries make it difficult for me to raise my arm straight up. I've also found that most drivers don't understand this signal anyway (just as they don't understand what a "Yield" sign means) and that the right arm signal gets the point across much more effectively.
I am a motorcyclist as well as a cyclist and I don't think it's safe o use the right arm to signal on a motorcycle because that is your throttle hand. You need to keep that throttle steady as engine braking can cause handling to be upset.

April 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTony Pereira

The left arm/right turn deal never made sense to me either. I've been using both arms to point in the direction I want to go - and only when needed in tight traffic situations.

I doubt if many drivers even know what the "official" arm signals mean. Pointing to the direction you're about to head seems a bit more universal.

As a long time bicyclist and motorcyclist - that's how I'll continue to ride.

You have a great blog here.

April 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDan O

Common sense dictates pointing in the direction you want to turn. If you used your left arm to signal a right turn, most motorists these days wouldn't realize what you were doing...if they were even paying attention. It's difficult enough to get motorists to notice you, unless you're impeding their progress, riding recklessly, or wearing a clown suit :>)

On the days I commute by bicycle, my route is mostly bike trail. I do ride aboout six blocks on city streets on my way to the office. I ride as if I were driving, meaning I take the lane (no riding far to the right allowing motorists to squeeze past) , signal all turns and stop at every stop light.

April 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterD Dau


Amen!!!! I just don't get it. I always feel weird doing it!!! I actually didn't know the right arm "was" an "option"...I started doing it and it felt natural. Makes more sense for the oncoming driver turning left into your lane.

-Jarrod Krug/CogSnob

April 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJarrod Krug/CogSnob

I point with an extended index finger. It's noticeable and unambiguous, and I think drivers appreciate that. People don't care about rule following as much as they cara about basic courtesy.

April 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermander
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