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When to Use Hand and Turn Signals

Road safety gestures keep drivers, motorcyclists, and cyclists safe—and ticket-free.

Drivers should always communicate their intentions, whether they are driving in traffic or seemingly alone on a country road.

Dmitry Kalinovsky / Shutterstock

Are you breaking the law without even knowing it? Statistics show that one in four drivers fails to signal when turning, and twice as many neglect to do so when changing lanes. Yet most states in the West require signaling—with either a blinker or a hand—at least some of the time. Even when it's not illegal, failing to signal can compromise safety.

Electric turn signals or hand signals let everyone on the road, including cyclists and pedestrians, know your intentions. Nearly 40 percent of a vehicle’s outer perimeter is hidden by blind spots, which means drivers may not always be able to see other traffic in the vicinity. Signaling is a vital way to help prevent crashes, says William Van Tassel, manager of AAA Driver Training Programs. 

“Traffic will flow much smoother when there is communication among road users, and the risk of a collision will be much lower if there’s communication as well,” he says.

Here’s how and when to use blinkers and hand signals, hazard lights, and other safety gestures to communicate on the road.

Blinkers and Hand Signals

Drivers are legally required to signal at least 100 feet before turning, using a blinker or a hand signal, in every state in the West. Western states also mandate using a turn signal before changing lanes. Some states, such as California and Idaho, require drivers to signal five seconds before switching lanes to give anyone in traffic around you time to react. 

Of course, when you’re driving a car, you’re most likely to use the electric turn signals to communicate with others on the road. But it’s important to understand hand signals too. Anyone operating a vehicle with a broken, missing, or obscured turn signal is required by law to use hand signals when changing lanes or turning. You also should understand what other drivers and cyclists are signaling to you.

AAA hand signal infographic for AAA Members.

The three essential hand signals are:

  • Right turn: Bend your left arm 90 degrees at the elbow, with your fingers pointing up and palm facing forward. (Alternately, cyclists can point their right arm straight out to indicate an upcoming right turn.)

  • Left turn: Extend your left arm straight out, parallel to the ground, palm facing forward.

  • Slow/stop: Bend your left arm 90 degrees at the elbow, with your fingers pointing down and your palm facing behind you.

Cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists, which means they are also required to signal before turns and lane changes when safe to do so. However, there are times when signaling is unsafe, such as when both hands are needed on the handlebars to maintain control or apply the brakes, says Alison Dewey, director of education at the League of American Bicyclists. In these situations, Dewey recommends using head positioning—looking or nodding in the direction you plan to go—and eye contact to communicate your intentions to others and make sure they see you. She also advises checking over your shoulder before turning or changing lanes just like you would in a car. 

Hazard Lights

Emergency flashers can be powerful tools to alert others of a problem with your vehicle or an upcoming obstacle or hazard, such as a traffic collision. However, the laws around hazard lights vary. Most states in the West—including California, Montana, Oregon, and Wyoming—allow drivers to use their orange emergency flashers any time a potential danger arises. But Arizona and Nevada do not permit drivers to deploy hazard lights while their vehicle is moving. Wherever you are, the law requires you to activate the emergency flashers whenever your vehicle is unexpectedly stopped in the road or on the shoulder. 

If you’re riding a motorcycle without flashers, tap the brakes a few times to make the tail lights flash briefly. Or, as you would when riding a bicycle, use hand signals to alert drivers behind you that you are slowing down or stopping. You can also point at the obstacle or move your hand up and down parallel to the road—as if you are patting a dog on the head—to alert other drivers that they should slow down. (See Hand Signals for Road Safety infographic above.)

Bus driver waves out the window.

A friendly wave can go a long way on the road.

Mark McElroy / Shutterstock

Other Gestures and Ways to Communicate

The lights on your vehicle aren’t the only ways to communicate on the road. Here are some other helpful gestures to share your intentions, avoid accidents, and keep traffic flowing smoothly.

Horns

Honk your vehicle’s horn to alert other drivers of an impending collision, so that (ideally) everyone can respond quickly and avoid the incident. You may also tap the horn to nudge a distracted driver at a stop light or sign, Van Tassel notes. Do not honk at or near a cyclist or a pedestrian unless absolutely necessary; its loud blast may startle them and put them at greater risk by causing them to lose control, stop suddenly, or divert their attention from other traffic. 

Bells

Like a car horn, a robust bike bell can be a key communication tool. Use a short ring to alert other cyclists and pedestrians to your presence when passing or turning blind corners, Dewey says. If your bell is loud enough, you can also use it to make drivers aware of your presence or a dangerous situation, Van Tassel says. Cyclists are often obscured by driver’s blind spots, and a loud bell and your voice can ensure you are “seen” even when out of sight. “You shouldn’t give up your voice when you have a bell on your bike,” says Dewey, “you should be using both.” She recommends yelling, “I’m here, I’m here!” or “On your left!” to call attention to yourself when appropriate.

Eye Contact

Eye contact establishes that you’ve been seen and it’s safe to proceed, whether you are driving a car, riding a bike, or crossing the street. “[Eye contact] is a really effective way of seeing if the road users around you are paying attention and notice you,” Dewey says.

Pulsing Brake Lights

Tap your brakes a few times to give drivers behind you a heads up that you are slowing down or that there’s a hazard ahead, such as debris or an animal in the road. Cyclists can use a flashing red rear light at all times to increase visibility. “Sometimes blinking draws a little more attention than just a solid light,” Dewey says. “That’s why emergency vehicles flash.”

Flags

Red or orange flags are required in most Western states when a load extends four feet or more from the end of a vehicle. (At night, red lights are also required on the end of the load.) You may also see a red or orange flag on a recumbent bicycle or a bike trailer. Since both are often lower than many vehicle windows and therefore more difficult to see, Dewey recommends using a securely attached extended flag to help ensure they are seen.

Waves

Waving can communicate a variety of safety messages. It’s often used to give the right of way to another driver, pedestrian, or cyclist. A wave can deescalate a potentially tense situation by standing in as an apology or recognition of a mistake. A wave can also deliver a simple thank you, and, as such, really can’t be overused.

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