Motorcycles The Death Of The Motorcycle Hand Signal?Motorcycle hand signals were an integral part of riding for decades. Should they become obsolete?
- Words Owen Clarke
I learned to ride on my dad’s 1979 Low Rider. Because he’d stripped the turn signals off, manual hand signaling was the only way I learned how to signal a turn. Left arm out straight—Left. Left arm cocked at a right angle upward—Right. This was useful really, because Alabama’s motorcycle license exam was just a 25-question multiple-choice test, and quite a few of the questions seemed to be about hand signals.
So even once I bought my own bikes (with turn signals), hand signaling was ingrained in my noggin. Today, more than a few years and thousands of miles later, I often signal both manually and using my signal lights. It’s a weird habit, maybe. But I don’t think it’s a bad one.
Of course, hand signals can be used for far more than signaling a turn. In group rides, hand motions can be used to signal low gas, call for a pit stop, point out hazards or cops ahead, request a lower or higher speed, and more. There are more than a dozen widely-recognized motorcycle hand signals, and in the past, hand signals were the only way to communicate on a motorcycle.
Now anyone can go to Cycle Gear and pick up a Bluetooth headset and mic for $100. You rarely see riders without them. So today you don’t have to signal to communicate with your riding buddy, you just have to start talking. When I ride, the only signal I ever see riders giving is the two-finger-down salute. None of my friends who ride motorcycles ever use hand signals. (Hell, a lot of them don’t even use their normal signal lights, but that’s another argument.)
In short, hand signals are dying out.
It’s understandable, because it’s objectively more efficient to communicate via headsets and signal your turns via electric signal lights, and there’s also an argument that in some situations, the risk of taking your left hand off the handlebar outweighs the benefits, in terms of controlling your bike. What’s more—at least when it comes to signaling turns—there’s a question of whether the car drivers around you even know what your hand signals mean. I’m willing to bet that 95% of drivers on the road have no idea that a left arm raised, bent 90° upward, means “I’m about to turn right.”
All that said, I think we’re losing something by making hand signaling obsolete.
Part of the reason I like signaling my turns by hand in addition to using my signal lights is that the motion of putting my arm out, extended or upwards, is eye-catching to the cars around me. Motorcycles are notorious for blending in on the road, and “I didn’t see him,” is probably the most common excuse spouted after a cager obliterates a motorcyclist.
Hand signaling is a great way to keep yourself a dynamic, active presence on the road, and once a car driver clocks that you’re there, they’ll usually remember for as long as you’re riding around them. So even if my hand signals are as unintelligible as High Valyrian to the car drivers around me, at least maybe they’re looking over and thinking, “Hey, there’s a guy on a motorcycle near me. What’s he doing? Why’s he waving his arm? What’s going on?”
I’ll always prefer their confusion—and awareness of me—over them being utterly oblivious to my presence.
‘I didn’t see him,’ is probably the most common excuse spouted after a cager obliterates a motorcyclist.
Signaling turns by hand also naturally forces me to slow down and give time for the signal to take effect. Far too many drivers, both on motorcycles and in cars, flip their signal lights for a split second and then hop lanes. If you’re trying to notify another driver of your intention to turn or switch lanes, doing that blitz-style signal is about as effective as flying over to Ukraine with a paintball gun thinking you’re going to save Kharkiv.
So signaling by hand and light, instead of only flicking a thumb to hit your electric signal light, gets you in the habit of slowing down. It gives time for the drivers around you to spot your signal and be aware of your intentions, even if it’s only the electric signal that means anything to them.
While writing this article, I went back and re-took the Alabama motorcycle license exam online just for the hell of it. The questions are as braindead as I remembered. Example: You can help other vehicle operators notice that you are slowing down by a) swerving from side to side, b) using your turn signals, c) flashing your brake light, or d) beeping your horn.
But as blatantly obvious as the questions were, there were still a few that asked about hand signals. It was good to see.