I can still remember sitting in the giant circle room at my kindergarten and listening to the presenter on bicycle safety. He engaged our little minds by making us guess how to signal a left turn. Without much delay, a bunch of us stuck our left arms straight out. Hooray! We got it right.
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Then he asked how we would go about signaling a right turn. As expected, since it’s intuitive and makes complete sense, the majority of kids who weren’t more engaged with picking their noses shot their right arms straight out.
The presenter told us that wasn’t right and to try again. I don’t recall all the guesses, but I do remember no one got it right. The presenter showed us the answer, left arm bent up at the elbow. I remember the confusion I felt.
Taken from the automobile
Here’s the problem, hand signals used by cyclists weren’t invented by, or intended to be used by, riders. They come from the earliest days of automobiles before blinkers and taillights were standard.
Drivers of some of the first cars had to use their left arm to signal turns and stops. They couldn’t use their right arm because it was inside the car. It wasn’t until the mid-1940s that turn signals were commonplace on automobiles.
But now, cars have blinkers (although most drivers don't know what they are) and are loaded with more screens and distractions than ever. And it pains me to say, but unless a young driver has time to ask Siri or Google search on their smartphone what it means when a bike rider raises their left arm bent at the elbow, there’s a very solid chance they have no idea.
Point the direction you want to turn
There’s a safer, easier, more instinctive way to indicate which way you’re going to go. Just like cars with blinkers on either side, cyclists need to point the direction they are going to turn.
While there’s been and will continue to be new blinker and taillight solutions for cyclists, for the most part they’ve been gimmicky, too heavy or too fragile.
It’s brutally simple: point with your left hand and arm to signal a left turn, point with your right hand and arm to signal a right turn. Simple, easy to do, but more importantly, safer and easier to understand for all parties involved.
Old habits die hard
Much to my chagrin, I still see cyclists stick their left arm up to signal right turns. Despite riding for decades, I even get caught off guard, wondering “what are they waving at?” Or if I’m far away or not paying close attention to the rider way up in front of me, questioning “what are they reaching for?”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Both the League of American Bicyclists and the US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show two ways for a cyclist to hand signal a right turn.
The now defunct, US-based National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances, whose members are made up of state governments, strongly encourages the more common sense approach of pointing with the right arm. If fact, it's latest version (from 2000) mentions cyclists using their right arm to signal turning right.
According to Policy Director of the League of American Bicyclists Ken McLeod, "In our most recent Bicycle Friendly State survey, 37 states said that a bicyclist could signal a right hand turn by using their right arm."
The Dutch are a fine example. They ride bikes more than almost any first-world country, and guess what, they use the point where you want to go method. The same can be said for my colleagues over at BikeRadar's UK office — and those guys ride on the wrong side of the road with their brakes reversed!
As cyclists let's do ourselves a favor by using a safer, more logical way to announce our intentions while riding in traffic. Please stop teaching the car-based, archaic, confusing way of signaling a right turn.