Why I Signal Right Turns With My Left Arm

It can be easy to forget or simply not use hand signals when cycling. Streetcar tracks, potholes, bike lanes in door zones and other obstacles can have you focusing on keeping both hands on your handlebars. Yet, when it comes to communicating with other road users there is no better way than with hand signals.

Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of debate about how to signal a right turn. In North America, both extending your left arm then angling your forearm up and simply extending your right arm to point in the direction you’re about to go are acceptable. I’ve used both styles, but my default is to use my left arm. Here’s why:

Predictability: Every other hand signal uses your left arm. So, if drivers are looking for these signals (and I certainly hope they are) it makes sense that they will be watching for the movements of your left arm.

Balance: With both hands on the handlebars I use my front brake more than my rear brake to slow my speed and control my balance when slowing, however, with just one hand on the bars I prefer to use my rear brake for speed control. Now, this is less efficient than using the front brake but as I’m already slowing down to turn I don’t feel the need for super efficient braking. Also, should I hit an unexpected bump (and Toronto streets are littered with them) steadying myself and gripping my front brake could send me ass over teakettle.

Bell Ringing: My bell is mounted on the right side of my bars. Should a car door or pedestrian suddenly appear in my path while signaling my thumb is always at the ready. I could yell, but it seems these days that before a scream leaves my lips my thumb has already set my bell singing.

Girl Executing Right Turn

Many will point out that drivers simply do not know what this hand signal means. I can’t declare whether this is true or not but this does work to the final advantage of using your left arm to signal right turns. I’ve found that many drivers are reluctant to pass and slow down behind me when I use my left arm to signal a right turn. It could be that they are confused, it could be that they are startled to see my arm move in such a curious way but no matter what the reason I find that I’m rarely buzzed by cars in the right lane when I signal with my left arm.

And finally, many cyclists seem to think that pointing in the air to signal a turn looks silly and can be confused for a polite wave. Now, I’ve had cyclists riding towards me wave back at me while I was only signaling a turn. But I don’t feel that this is a disadvantage and I actually like to think this just means I’m a friendly, King of Kensington-type who people want to acknowledge.

What do you do?

MTO site with hand signal information: Cycling Skills
Photo 1 via Seattle DOT
Photo 2 by Mikael Colville-Andersen

Comments

  1. Ironically, drivers should, legally, understand the bent-left-arm turn signal; That’s what they are supposed to do if their electronic signals fail to work (and a driver, on the left side of the car, couldn’t possibly use his right arm to signal a right turn).

  2. I’m definitely a left-hand person. Using your left hand your signal happens between you and the traffic lanes – this is more noticeable than a signal happening between you and a parked car or the curb.

    And Adam’s correct – this should not confuse drivers (in theory) because it’s part of what they learned to get their license in the first place.

    I think the ‘stop’ signal confuses people even more though I’ve been using it much more since the Bike Rally (where signaling slowing and stopping was important as we were traveling in a large group often starting our day with 300 riders). I find that, particularly in residential areas, it’s wise to signal that you *don’t* intend to blow the light or stop sign as many drivers expect you to.

  3. From a driver’s POV I prefer seeing riders use the left hand for signaling because they are usually riding close to the curb and it’s awfully difficult (sometimes impossible) to see their right hands. Things like backpacks/messenger bags block my view of the right hand so using the left hand makes it much easier to see their intentions.

  4. I agree with Todd on the slowing down / stopping signal… it’s hardly ever used – resulting in cyclists stopping directly in front of me with little warning.

    When someone actually does it I’ve taken to thanking them for signalling as I pass them. :)

  5. I always signal a right turn with my right hand, but I can see why some would prefer the left-hand method. If I’m turning right onto a side street and a car is emerging from that street, I think it’s more obvious to the driver that I’m turning in the direction I’m pointing, especially if I make eye contact as well. Of course in Toronto there are times when it’s not a good idea to take either hand off the bars – some pretty rough pavement out there…

  6. That’s a good point, Jeff M. How you signal can also be based on who you intend your signal to be seen by.

  7. I agree using the left hand is preferable and more easily seen by motorists. I also use the left hand signal to indicate when I’m going to stop – usually when I see an available bike post near my office at King-Bay. I’ve had drivers and cyclists say “thanks for letting me know you’re stopping”. It just clears them for knowing I’m not going to be blocking their turn and for cyclists they know what I’m about to do.

  8. My husband and I always have this debate so its great to see a write-up on it. I grew up in Canada and we were taught in school to use your left arm for signalling. And, as you point out, since the rear brake is used with the right hand, its safer – especially for those of us who live with hills. Also, the arm is closest to those who drive, so easy for motorists to see. My husband on the other hand, grew up in Australia and he learned to use his right arm for signalling, which makes perfect sense since the traffic is on the other side of the road than here in north america. But, I can’ seem to convince him that here in Vancouver, he should switch, and whats worse, my nephew who’s now taking bike safety classes, agrees with him and says he is being taught to use his right arm. Good Grief!!

  9. Yes, I think you are absolutely right with using the left arm to turn right, BUT unfortunately I’d say 90% of drivers on the roads today dunno what that hand signal means. I know it’s in Highway code for drivers and is a completely legal form of signalling, but you have to realise that most drivers won’t get what this means…so for me, I use my left arm to turn left or vice versa – to be completely clear in my intentions for the majority of drivers.

  10. I always signal my turns (unless no one is a around), however for right turns I always use my right arm–extended out.

    Haven’t had any issues yet, actually many motorists have given me a little courteous wave for signalling.

  11. Dave Krentz says:

    I know that using the left hand is what we were all taught — hey, I taught it myself when I was with Young Drivers. I do find, though, that the “left hand only” style suits an upright riding style best. My own style is lower, like a road racer, and I find that using the right hand for right (and the left for left) is easier and safer. To make sure the message gets sent I use a rather abrupt, straight-arm “pistol” gesture that would make Alberto Contador proud. From the numerous surprised double-takes I’ve seen from pedestrians this technique is successful. I’m also a full-spandex rolling freak show, which enhances visibility … being seen is what we want, after all.

  12. It should be noted that indicating turns with hand signals is required when operating a bicycle on a public road. Not signalling provides grounds for a peace officer to stop said cyclist and potentially cite them under the HTA. Anybody ever heard of anybody getting a ticket for this?

  13. Dave, officers don’t stop motorists who don’t signal so I doubt they’ll stop cyclists.

    I suppose if one did get stopped for not signalling, you could always tell the officer that it is also law to have both hands on the handlebars at all times.

  14. Dave/Ryan: I have heard of cyclists (and drivers) being ticketed for signalling offences, particularly during blitzes. But I don’t know anyone personally who has been.

    Personally I use my left hand exclusively for signalling. I know using the right hand is legal and I see people using it, but I’m not very comfortable riding with just my left hand on the handlebars. I also feel that it’s more visible to a driver to signal on the left hand side, and as Todd said it helps to be consistent.

    I’m bad at signalling stops, since I use my left hand brake more than the right. Unless I’m riding in a busy area or in a group, or if I’m stopping somewhere unexpected (i.e. not an intersection) I generally don’t bother. I’m not going to say that’s best practice of course. I’m thinking about rigging up a brake light instead.

  15. Dave Krentz says:

    I’ve never received a ticket for failing to signal but I’ve been clocked on radar … As I went by I yelled “How am I doing?” and he yelled back “Fifty!” That was the speed limit: I wonder if he’d have pulled me over had I been faster …

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