When riding a bike, whether you are riding solo or riding in a group, you must know and use cycling hand signals. Safety on the bike is so important, and it’s absolutely vital to clearly communicate to motorists and other cyclists where you are going and what you are planning to do.
Now, this all seems quite obvious, and should be rather simple, but unfortunately it can start to feel a lot more complex. Different group rides, for example, may have different rules/norms or different commonly used signals than what you are used to using while riding on the road.
So, that being said, what are the best bike hand signals, and how and when should you use them? In this article, we will review the commonly used hand signals on the bike, and discuss when to use what signal. Some signals are honestly better to use in a group vs, solo, so we will go over that too!
Why You Need To Use Bike Hand Signals
When you first start cycling, hand signals can feel a little awkward. You are just getting comfortable on your bike and getting used to clipping in. Now you have to take one hand off the handle bars to signal!
It definitely can feel like a lot, and if you are a little challenged in the coordination department like I am, it can feel scary and intimidating. You might be tempted to skip it altogether, but this is a huge mistake.
Communicate Your Intentions Clearly to Avoid A Vehicle Accident
I know of many cyclists who prefer to cycling off the road on trails because of the harrowing statistics regarding cycling accidents. Fatal cycling accidents have been on the rise since 2010, and in the US in 2018, 846 cyclists were killed in traffic crashes according to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This was the deadliest year of cycling crashes since 1990.
You may think that since there were fewer cars on the road in 2020 due to the pandemic that statistics would improve significantly, but they did not. Even though traffic on the roads decreased by as much as 40% for months at a time, there were still over 600 cycling deaths in 2020 according to an in-depth study by Outside magazine.
In order to stay as safe as possible on the road, it is important to communicate clearly to motorists and to other cyclists if you’re riding in a group, and a great way to do this is through cycling hand signals.
Of course there will be motorists who are simply not paying attention. Still, there are also times where motorists hit cyclists due to a miscommunication. As a road cyclist, you want to do everything you can to communicate your intentions to drivers and stay safe.
Communicate In a Group Ride to Avoid a Cycling Crash
In addition to making your intentions clear to motorists, you also want to communicate clearly to cyclists. When in a group ride, you are often “on the wheel” of the cyclist in front of you. This makes it tough to see what’s coming ahead.
You want to be sure everyone in the group knows turns that are coming up, and hazards that are in the road.
The most obvious way to do this is to call things out. Saying “left turn!” or “hole!” or “tracks!” certainly goes a long way to making sure those behind you know what is on the road in front of YOU.
One of the most important things to signal and call out in group rides is when you are slowing and stopping. My worst cycling crash ever was in a group ride when the riders in front of me abruptly slowed without calling out or signaling.
I went into the back wheel of the bike in front of me, fell, and hit my head and slid along the pavement. An awesome helmet meant I was ultimately OK, but that was after a fancy ambulance ride and a number of stitches on my face.
Calling things out, coupled with appropriate hand signals, is a surefire way to keep everyone in your group in the know, and keep everyone safe.
- More Reading: 5 Tips for Your First Group Ride
6 Commonly Used Bicycle Hand Signals
Now that you know it’s important to use bike hand signals, what ARE the specific cycling hand signals you should use?
The signals shown in this article are are combination of signals recommended by the United States NHTSA and signals that are commonly used in group rides. Please note that each group may have its own way of doing things, so it’s always best when you are riding with a new group to ask what hand signals/words they use to communicate.
For solo rides, you are communicating solely with motorists. I will admit, however, I will occasionally be so in the habit of calling things out that I will find myself yelling “HOLE!” and pointing at the hole when I am riding by my lonesome.
1. Left Turn
The left turn signal is probably the easiest and most intuitive of all of the hand signals. When making a left turn, put your left arm straight out to the left, parallel to the ground, and point left.
2. Right Turn
There is actually some controversy with the right turn signal. The most intuitive way to indicate you are turning right is to extend your right arm out to the right. This can be harder to drivers to see, however, and also can be harder for cyclists behind you to see in a group ride.
Many consider the “proper” way to indicate a right turn is to signal with a bent left arm. Others think this is a terrible idea because they feel it’s confusing, and that motorists are less likely to know what it means.
The NHTSA shows the bent left arm as the primary way to signal a right turn, as shown in the above photo.
They do, however, also show the extended right arm pointing to the right as an alternative to this signal, as seen below, so this one really is personal preference.
The NHTSA depicts the same signal for stopping/slowing with a bent left arm, palm facing behind.
In our group rides we like to differentiate between stopping and slowing, because there are times where we slow but don’t ultimately come to a completely stop. It is very helpful to be able to communicate this to other riders in your group.
If you panic in the moment and can’t remember what your group uses for a slowing/stopping signal, just call it out! It is best to be in the habit of always calling out your intentions in addition to using a hand signal.
This signal is especially useful in group rides. Any time there is a hazard in the road, such a a hole, grate, or even a banana peel (I cannot tell you how many people in our area through banana peels out of their cars!) it is best to call it out. If possible also point at the hazard with either your right or the left hand depending on the hazard’s location.
A flat shaking hand to indicate loose sand/gravel is always appropriate. You will also want to call out “Sand” or “Gravel!” depending on what the hazard is. Use the hand that is closest to the hazard. It is also perfectly acceptable to point at the hazard and call it out just as you would a hole or grate.
It is very important to let other riders know when train tracks are coming up. If caught unaware, your wheel can get stuck in the tracks! You always want to ride perpendicular to train tracks to avoid this.
To signal train tracks, extend your left arm, bent, palm out, and swing your hand from side to side. This is a less frequently used signal so yelling “tracks!” out to those behind you is very helpful as well.
When in Doubt, Call it Out
This is the best motto to keep in mind while cycling. While cyclists must master the directional cycling signals for motorists (since they aren’t going to hear you when you yell “left turn!” when their windows are closed and they are blasting music), we can always call things out verbally to the group.
In group rides be sure to call out everything you see, and everything you are doing. Be mindful of the signals you are using, and how visible they are. For example, if I am in a group I will usually used the bent left arm signal to turn right, because the cyclists behind me won’t see my right arm at all.
If I am riding alone, I am more likely to use a straight right arm to signal turning right to avoid confusing motorists.
So there you have it! These are cycling signals as recommended by the United States NHTSA and commonly used while cycling in a group.
Remember, Cycling Hand Signals are just one more safety tool in a cyclist’s arsenal. Be sure to also take care of the other basics such as wearing a helmet, reflective or bright clothing, and using front and rear bike lights to ensure you are as visible as possible on the road.