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10 Secrets to Cycling with Traffic: Part 5 of 10

10 Secrets to Cycling with Traffic

Today we continue a series of 10 posts about cycling with car traffic. These are things we have learned from years of riding in downtown Toronto. Some of these tips you may have seen before in other places, and some will be new.

This is not meant to be a complete list… there are more secrets out there… but here are 10 that you’ll find very useful.

NOTE: These are geared towards downtown cycling, since that’s what I’m most familiar with. These all assume that you already know about proper lighting and safety (ie. helmets are useful, stopping at red lights is advised, etc.) precautions, and know that riding on sidewalks is one of the most unsafe things you can do, for both pedestrians and yourself.

Past tips are found at the bottom of this post.

5. Signal Sensibly

signalDrivers are trained to look for signals. Stoplights, stop signs, turn signals, brake lights… all of these things catch the attention of a driver. It’s what they look for to make sure they don’t hit anyone. Letting them know that you’re planning on turning, or coming out into the road more to pass a parked car is just courteous and polite.

Hand-signals can be confusing to drivers… pointing up means turning right?  That’s confusing – especially for drivers who don’t know about cycling.  They may have learned these signals back when they were 16 and getting their driver’s license, but they’ve long since forgotten them.

A far more sensible way to signal (and it’s perfectly legal) is to point in the direction you’re going. It keeps everyone on the same page. Do it well ahead of any turns, so that drivers know that you’re planning to turn, and they can act accordingly to avoid you.

Check out the full “10 Secrets to Cycling with Traffic” series:

  1. Drivers Don’t Want to Kill You
  2. Ride in a Straight Line
  3. Play by the Rules
  4. Avoid the “Stoplight Squeeze”
  5. Signal Sensibly
  6. Take That Lane
  7. Make Them THINK You’re Unpredictable
  8. Ride With Others
  9. Avoid the Right Hook
  10. Practice Your Route

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  • Pointing left means you’re going straight? I’m confused.

    Also, while it may be legal to point in the direction you’re going, in many cases you’ll have to use the hand that is less visible to drivers to do it. The standard signals mean that drivers can always look at the left side of a cyclist to find the signal. Predictability is an essential part of traffic safety.

    Also, changing the signals because we think people don’t understand is a surefire way to ensure people don’t understand. Keep it simple.

  • duncan

    Whether they understand what I mean or not, I find hand signals are the best way to interact and, dare I say, control drivers behind you. I have never been passed when signaling a right turn (left arm bent up) as I find drivers stay behind me as I signal. And when I’m moving further away from the “door zone” I signal by pointing left with my left hand and more often than not the driver behind me slows down.

  • Pointing in the direction you are going is”standard”, and makes the most sense. I’m not saying the other way isn’t as valid.

    And, yeah… some people think that pointing left means you’re going straight, and pointing down means a left turn. These people aren’t cyclists though…. these are drivers who learned how to drive 30, 40, 50 years ago – and don’t know anything about hand signals.

  • I still prefer signaling right turns with my left hand. The reason is that it is much easier for drivers to see than signals made with the right hand, IMO.

    But Duncan’s right, communicating with drivers does wonders towards making it easier to work with them. I used to be really nervous about going from the right lane, through the middle to a left turn lane in moving traffic (think Viaduct going east to north on Broadview) but I find that if I signal early there’s very often a driver who is nice enough to let me thorough. Alternately they’re afraid I’m crazy enough to just pull in front of them and slow down to avoid that. Either way I get where I’m going safely.

  • misslynx

    I’ve heard that the signaling everything with the left hand approach is the American standard and the point in the direction you’re turning approach is an international (but predominantly European standard), but I can’t recall where I heard it. Does anyone know anything about that?

  • Eric

    Wow… Didn’t expect to see such a blatant error in this article.

    Left hand pointing up (arm bent 90 degrees) or right arm extended to the right = right turn.
    Left arm extended to the left = left turn.
    Left hand pointing down (arm bent 90 degress) = stopping.

    In addition, when riding with other cyclists:
    When approaching an obstacle on the ground, like a pothole, point at it with a straight arm and keep pointing at it as you pass it.
    When moving slightly to the left to avoid a body height obstacle, reach behind yourself with your right arm and point it to the left.
    Often, when approaching glass I will also use the ground obstacle method, but waggle my fingers while doing so to indicate a lot of small obstacles.

  • Adam H.

    The OHTA has been updated for cyclists; using the right arm for a right turn signal is perfectly valid, and I have never found that signal to be less visible than using the left arm.

  • And in some cases, it won’t make any difference what signal you use, unfortunately. There have been numerous times I’ve had my left arm out, also pointing left trying to get into the left lane only to have vehicles just keep blasting past.

    Another thing to remember if you’re riding with other cyclists is to do a quick check before signalling. As mentioned, that simple head turn will alert people you’re “going to do something” but it will also make sure you don’t end up smacking another cyclist (or vehicle) with your arm.

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