What are your intentions? (i.e. signaling)

So we’ve been going down this road together for a while… I’d really like to know what your intentions are as we move forward. I’ve been behind you all along and I’ve been trying to give you your space, watching you negotiate the ins and outs of this situation… I just really need to know where you’re headed because it’s obvious I need to make my own plans. But I can’t give you what you need unless you TELL me. Give me a sign! Communicate with me! By the way, your messenger bag is awesome.

“The essence of communication is intention.” – Werner Erhard

One of the (many) safe behaviors we need as cyclists is the habit of signaling our movements. Whether sharing a lane with vehicles or in a segregated bike lane, those around us need to know where we are going. Even pedestrians need to know where we are going. You know how frustrated YOU get when you are following a driver who turns suddenly without using a blinker. Or when someone’s brake light inexplicably doesn’t work.

The frustration can be the same with bicycles, both as a cyclist and as a motorist. I think it contributes to some motorists’ irritation with cyclists, and their assertion that cyclists just go wherever they want all willy-nilly on the street. Many motorists today have probably forgotten what hand signals mean (although I know it is still included in many (if not all) DMV driver’s manual booklets). The standard hand signals started out (from what I understand) as a technique for those crazy horseless carriage drivers. It only got worse when automobiles began to have enclosed cabs rendering the driver invisible. Sticking one’s hand out the driver-side window to let others know a turn or stop was anticipated became rote for early drivers until blinkers were introduced as standard equipment in the late 1930’s/early 1940’s.

"Eliminates arm signals... Works like factory installed models on expensive cars." From: Modernmechanix

“Eliminates arm signals… Works like factory installed models on expensive cars.” (From: ModernMechanix blog)

As cyclists, unless you have a super tricked-out bike with dynamo- or battery-powered blinkers (or one of those hip bike jackets with turn signals built into the back– yes, really), we are stuck with hand signals, some hundred years later. So here’s a refresher on how they work:

From: http://austintexas.gov/content/1349/FAQ/1688

Bicycle hand signals (Many thanks, City of Austin)

One thing you’ll notice from the image above is that signals are given with the left* hand (*we’ll get to the caveat in a second). Why is that? Well, partly due to their turn-of-the-century origin and the US convention of drivers being seated on the left side of the vehicle. In Britain, drivers can signal with their right hand out the window. British cyclists also signal with their right hand.

But as for what to do in Texas, we’re sticking with the left hand. The other reason we use the left hand to signal in the US is that in almost all cases, we are riding to the right of vehicles. If you are to the right and slightly in front of a vehicle, which of your hands is more visible to the driver? That’s correct– your left hand. Although either hand is legally correct, I personally have a strong preference for using the left hand for nearly all signaling because of this logic. Riding to the right and in front of a vehicle, I have greater confidence that the driver will see my signal if I’m waving around with the hand that is closest to him/her. It is easier to teach children to use their right hand to signal a right turn, but as adults, I personally think we should stick with the left hand. UNLESS we find ourselves in some situation where we are to the left of traffic (and some recently implemented on-street bicycle facilities have been designed this way… the Jefferson Street cycle track, for example).

Probably easier for the driver to understand, but possibly less visible/noticeable to the driver (From: Nevadabike blog)

Probably easier for the driver to understand, but possibly less visible/noticeable to the driver (From: Nevadabike blog)

My usual exception for this left-handed rule is changing lanes to the right. If I am riding in a shared lane situation or as a vehicular cyclist, I will use my right hand to point to the right lane if that is my goal in changing lanes. This is another question of visibility– if there is a car behind me, or behind me and to my right, they are more likely to see my right hand than my left hand.

If you are a big advocate of right turns being signaled with the right hand, that’s totally cool (not trying to step on any toes here), but I like to signal with whatever appendage seems to be most visible and usually it is my left hand. There is also the argument that drivers (who may not remember what hand signals mean) are more likely to understand a gesture to the right as indicating a right turn. Totally valid argument. But they have to see it before they can understand it.

The stop signal is one that I will admit I don’t always do. I suppose it works well for those riding a coaster brake (those are the kind you had on your banana-seat bike as a kid where you pedal backwards to engage the brake). Only one of my bikes has a coaster brake and it is almost 70 years old and weighs approximately half a ton so I rarely ride it in Dallas. On my other bicycles, I find that most of the time when I am coming to a stop, it is (1) at a stop sign or red light or (2) completely unexpected. In case (1), I assume everyone knows I’ll be coming to a stop, and in case (2), coming to a stop is a total surprise to me as well. In either case, both my hands are usually fully occupied with engaging the brakes in order to stop. Perhaps I should signal a stop more often but it isn’t always easy to execute.

When I helped teach a kids’ summer bike camp in Oregon, we rode in a group and had the kids call out what they were doing as they signaled with their hands. This is a good practice for adults, too, if you are riding in a pack. Granted, a group of 7-year-olds will sort of overdo it when yelling “Left turn!”… but it assured that everyone in the group (and many passersby) knew we were preparing to execute a left turn. Riding in a pack, not everyone will be able to see the front of the pack to know that some condition may exist warranting an unanticipated movement.

One very law-abiding friend of mine, riding one sunny afternoon on the Katy Trail, signaled a stop as he approached a location where the trail crosses a street at grade. There are, in fact, stop signs on the trail approaches to these intersections. As he reports, the result of his stop signalling and subsequent stop (he HAD signaled it, after all) was a volley of verbal abuse (and one-fingered signals) from cyclists approaching him from behind and a few near-misses as said verbal volleyers blew past him into the intersection.

There are a number of debatable issues brought to bear by my telling this story… Rather than launching off into a discussion of those points, let’s stick for now to the observation that in an alternate ending to this story, the other cyclists would have recognized that he was preparing to stop and given him a wider berth because he had signaled a stop, whether it is common to do so at that location or not.

For everyone to be safe, we need to be self-aware– this includes:

  1. Being aware of our surroundings and looking for potential obstacles or conflicts (vehicles, animals, potholes, trash, trees, … AND other cyclists) (I’ll talk about this more in a later post) and
  2. Communicating non-verbally and verbally (if appropriate) with those around us to minimize the chance that we ourselves are creating an obstacle or conflict.

No one can read your mind… except for gypsies. But I haven’t seen too many gypsies in Dallas. A large part of road safety is managing expectations– don’t make people try to guess what you’re about to do. Be safe and signal (left OR right hand) to let everyone know where you’re going as you ride. If we do it consistently, drivers and other cyclists in Dallas will eventually catch on.

– Ashley


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