Mixed Signals

When you’re on a bike it helps to communicate where you’re going. At first it may seem weird, especially if you’ve never seen anyone signal before. This was the case when I started biking. But I gave it a shot. At first I stuck to the basics: “right” and “left.” I started with the most textbook versions.


Then I realized it was much more nuanced- it was about using body language. Even the littlest gesture said something.  I could mix it up depending on the situation. I could convey urgency, scale it up or down, even completely change it up sometimes….


You can even get creative and make your own signals. Though, everything you do becomes signal of some sort…


But once you get over the awkwardness of hand signals- it’s a relief to have more in your commuter vocabulary than “right,” “left,” and “honk.”



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25 Responses to “Mixed Signals”

  • Dave

    For the record, extending the left arm downwards 45° indicates slowing or stopping. The more you know…

  • In addition to Left and Right I use a few other signals (N.B. these are from a UK, left side of the road, perspective).
    “Please overtake” / “it is safe to overtake” – an overhead swimming action with the right arm.
    “Please do not overtake” – a right-hand turn signal and looking behind to stare the relevant party straight in the eyes.
    “Slowing down” – Left arm waved up and down slowly.
    “You are an idiot” – Any number of body parts in any configuration suitable for the display of frustration or fear.
    (Okay, that last one isn’t serious.)

  • Steve

    Amazing, you have captured the the broad state of signal miscommunication perfectly. When traveling amongst the cages I use the traditional up for right, out for left and down signals as taught when learning how to drive my model T. I have either been lucky, or skilled enough in something of 30 years of riding of never tangling with a car. That is not to say I have had close calls, there have been several. At which point the universal signal of extending a certain finger to it’s upright position was satisfactory to indicate my displeasure.

    Well done as always, thank you for you work, and for having to explain to my coworkers why i spit coffee all over at the reading of “Look, two puppies licking each other”.

  • Justin Winokur

    I really do not like the “fancy right”. It is misleading to any motorist who didn’t memorize the driving handbook. It looks kind of like a left but not really sure. When I use my left hand to signal right, I put it in more of a curve with my fingers pointing clearly to the right. Much less confusing. I do not trust motorist to know the proper signals so I use ones that I think are more clear.

    • Moopheus

      The conventional hand signals taught in drivers’ ed were developed for drivers who could only use one hand to signal out the window, and date from the days when many cars did not have reliable signals (a car-collector friend has a car with little flags that pop out of the door frames!). For a cyclist, just clearly pointing in the direction you want to go usually gets the idea across.

    • John

      i use the taught signals because my front brake (only actual brake on my fixed gear, and the most effective brake on bikes with 2) is on the right side so i dont remove my right hand from the handlebars unless absolutely necessary. however when signalling for a right turn my had is in a fist except for my thumb and i move my forearm side to side so it’s clear that im turning right. never had any problems with that signal

    • Vanessa

      I do this do. Almost like I am doing a sideways stretch and with pointing fingers.

    • bostonperson whohasbike

      same here – left hand over head – pointing right.

  • Ben

    “Hi?” Definitely let out a pretty loud chuckle at the office. :-)

  • Doug D

    In fact, not only do i see folks use the “fancy right” signal for turning left, but it was one of the questions that less than half of the people holding Alberta driving licences could answer.
    I like to mime throwing a rock as the signal for “please give me more room”

  • Chris

    Awesome post. Thanks for the inspiration for commuting in Arcata, CA !!!!!

    I’ve been lightly trying to use signals. It is a little awkward. Though your ideas sit with me well. Good times……

  • I grew up with the left arm at 90 degrees meaning a right turn . . . sometime when I was napping my state allowed using the right arm to signal a right turn (since these were developed for drivers, of course the right arm can’t be seen inside the car). I have a hard time getting used to it, but it seems to confuse people less.

    The subtlest signal can work . . . if a driver is hanging just behind me, a quick turn of the head to let him know I know he’s there usually gives him the okay to pass. (Amazingly, there are people who want to pass me safely.)

    The non-standard signal I use most often is pointing (jabbing, really) into the travel lane, meaning “something is in my way and I’m coming out into the road.” Seems to work.

  • Marge

    loved it! “releasing a foul odor”” and girl with the cigarette…..

  • Wendy

    I tend to just use extended left arm for left turn, extended right arm for right turn, a small wave or hand up without extension either for “thanks” or “I see you”, or waving on to encourage them to pass. Since I’m on a recumbent trike and need both hands to apply the brakes evenly (both brakes are on the front wheels) sometimes I can’t signal when trying to stop on a downhill, so I kind of use my head to communicate… and mental telepathy… Sigh…

  • go left

    nazi salute means: watchout i’m taking off!

  • Justin Winokur

    I just noticed the two Boston Terriers with the “Hi” guy. They are so cute. Did you just cut them right from your comic with them? They look similar

  • the pedestrian in your right-turn panel reminds me that from time to time I’ll extend my right arm, palm forward in the universal gesture of “Hey, Hi Five!”

    Works well on people hailing taxicabs, and particularly well on people on Mass Ave. or Kenmore Square after 2am when they’re all a little tipsy and generous with giddy gestures.

  • Tim

    The sign under “Just Smoking a Cigarette” isn’t entirely dissimilar to the normal sign used in the UK, in group rides, to indicate to the person behind that there’s something down there that they need to be aware of. Typically accompanied by a cry of “glass” or “hole”, but often just a waving hand pointing at a pothole, so they know they’ll need to avoid it, even if they couldn’t see it before, because of you.

    Often times, it’s rare enough that your average commuter cyclist makes any sign, let alone an inadequate one. Ho hum.

  • dave

    you forgot foot signals. just stick out your foot the direction you are turning. works like a charm

  • bluebullet

    I’ll admit I sometimes spit to the left as a signal to overtaking cars: “Be so kind as not to pass me closer than I can spit.”

    Never to a cyclist, of course.

  • I find myself using the slow/stop signal much more frequently in the last year, even more than turn signals. Why? Because on a two-lane road, when there is oncoming traffic such that there is not enough room for motorists behind you to move over to pass, the slow signal very effectively holds them back, combined with moving into the center of the lane. Following, of course, a head turn (another means of communication) to make sure it’s safe to do that. Then when the oncoming traffic has passed, move back to the right slightly (lane position – yet another means of communication) and give the overtakers a friendly wave.

    Almost regardless of the content, I think almost any communication is helpful (excepting of course the one-finger salute), because I suspect motorists partly just want to know that you are aware of them. If you’re making yourself predictable and helping them know what you expect, sometimes they’re even grateful. A few months ago I had a motorist thank me (after we both happened to arrive at the same restaurant) for actively holding him behind me on a narrow twisty two-lane road with lots of blind curves and hill crests. I was confirming that it wasn’t safe to pass, and when I saw that it was, I let him go.

  • s

    I try to use the standard bent-arm R/L signals, but often have to go with a head-tilt to the right or left when turning, especially when on a drop-bar bike—lots of potholes in my part of Texas, and it’s a best-available compromise between bike control and advance warning for the turn.

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