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Top Hand Signals for Driving

By Evan Walton | September 22, 2022

Hand signals are utilized throughout our daily lives to communicate non-verbally. Whether it be a sweep of the hand as you offer an "After you," an "I do not know" shrug accompanied by skyward palms, or simple thumbs up in approval, we use hand signals daily. While hand signals are not typically used while driving, aside from the occasional road rage incident, there are situations where utilizing hand signs may become imperative.

Suppose your vehicle's turn signals have stopped operating correctly or a brake light goes out. In that case, hand signals provide a way to communicate safely with other drivers about your intention of changing lanes or slowing down.

Depending on your DMV-appointed driving test instructor, and state laws, you may also be required to recall hand signals on your road test to achieve your driver's license. Understanding essential hand signals and what each sign means helps maintain the safety of all divers on the road.

Slow Down or Stop

Suppose you are in an unfortunate situation where your brake light has malfunctioned or stopped working. In that case, you can safely indicate to other drivers your intent to slow down or stop using the following steps.

So, extend your left arm from the driver's window, pointing your arm downward, with your fingers extended and palm facing rearward. This hand signal is a universal sign of slowing down your vehicle. Keep your arm in this position, visible to other drivers behind you, until you have safely come to a complete stop. If stopping in an emergency, search for the safest location to stop to avoid any potential collisions.

Due to tailgating and rear-end accidents, warning other drivers of your vehicle's movements can prevent you and others from becoming injured. In addition, drivers need to begin signaling they are slowing down or stopping if using hand signals in advance of them performing the stop, providing other road users ample time to respond.

Left Turn

If your signal lights have stopped operating correctly, the left turn hand signal should be used before changing lanes to the left or turning left. Extend your left arm straight out of your left side window, palm facing forward. It's important to remember that drivers will think you are slowing or coming to a stop if you do not maintain the proper hand position. Keep your right hand on your steering wheel, hold the left arm position until completing your left turn safely, and retract your arm back into your vehicle. Therefore, it's imperative to keep your arm in the left turn position until the turn is complete to ensure all drivers in the lanes you are leaving and joining know your intention and that you also have a signaling malfunction.

Right Turn

Since a driver can not change their seat position, a right turn requires using the driver's left arm instead of their right arm. Therefore, prepare to signal for a right turn before changing lanes.

With your left arm extended out of the window, bend at the elbow, and raise the hand up with your palm forward. Maintain this position until you have safely completed the right turn.

The right-hand turn signal is universally recognized and alerts drivers of a turn or lane change. If you have a passenger with you, asking your passenger to signal a right turn for you may be tempting. But while it may have been seen before, legally, it's the driver's responsibility to make each hand signal.

When To Use Hand Signals

Every state requires drivers to signal their intentions to other road users. If turn signals or brake lights fail, hand signals are the best way to signal to other drivers.

And arm and hand signals are not only used when operating a car because they're the same format when driving a motorcycle or riding a bicycle. So whether you're working with two wheels or four, driving hand signals apply to all forms of private transportation. When attempting a lane change, slowing, stopping, or turning, are when to use hand signals.

When Tail Lights or Brake Lights are not operating correctly

Part of the responsibility attached to the privilege of obtaining a driver's license is to maintain your vehicle regularly. Drivers are responsible for keeping their cars roadworthy for the safety of everyone on the road.

With this in mind, malfunctioning or broken car lights are common, leaving it as the vehicle operator's responsibility to ensure all vehicle safety features are working correctly before driving on the open road. With the help of a second person, press your brake pedal and have the observer notify you of any malfunctions in your brake lights. In addition, check the left and right side blinkers and the hazard lights to ensure operational safety.

While Driving a Motorcycle

Motorcyclists abide by the same use of hand signals as other motor vehicles. The universality of driver hand signals is what helps maintain driver safety.

Hand signals are imperative when riding a motorcycle in a large group to sustain defensive driving if your signal lights or brake lights stop working. In addition, engine braking is more common in a larger group, which does not illuminate the brake light and increases the reliance on adequate hand signals.

Motorcyclists also have a more extensive list of signals, the most common mode of communication while driving a motorcycle.

Outside of the three hand signals outlined in this article, motorcyclists also use hand signals to communicate with each other:

  • Speed up
  • Slow down
  • Follow me
  • You Lead
  • Road Hazard
  • Pull Off
  • Fuel

When Riding a Bicycle

Bicyclists don't usually have built-in brake lights or turn signals. Therefore, most cyclists rely solely on hand signals to communicate with other road users.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), bicyclists are also allowed the alternative right turn, utilizing their right arm, fully extended with all fingers extended and using their index finger to point right. As a cyclist, remember that you are the most vulnerable while sharing a roadway, outlining the importance of proper hand signaling.

Like the other modes of transportation, cyclists are also subject to laws requiring their use of hand singles to notify road users of their intentions. While these laws aren't typically enforced on cyclists, they're in place for the same reasons of transportation safety.

Other Hand Signal Situations

If you've been notified of any signal failure by a kind driver, notice it yourself when inspecting a vehicle. And if you were pulled over and hopefully let off with a warning, you should not be operating the car at night if you have any signal malfunction.

Hand signals are only appropriate for daylight hours because, at night, it will be nearly impossible for other drivers to see your hand signals. In general, hand signals are a short-term solution and should be used in an emergency or taking the vehicle to rectify the signal failure.

While being tested on hand signaling within a driver's test can't be said enough in any article or by any instructor, new drivers should practice the hand signals until they become second nature. Practicing before a test can help ensure that you pass a motorcycle or driver's license exam and keep from causing harm or being harmed by miscommunication.