I learned cycling turn signals sitting cross-legged (what the kids these days call ‘crisscross applesauce’) on the floor of the school library at a bicycle safety class in approximately 1980, the left arm straight out for a left turn, and crooked to 90 degrees for a right. Some nice lady was there to go through a not-quite-professionally put together booklet, that included not just turn signals, but where to ride, where to cross streets, who it was safe to talk to, etc. I recall also receiving, at that session, a comic book featuring the unlikely superhero Captain Sprocket.
Poor guy. Couldn’t fly. Couldn’t see through stuff. He was basically a bike mechanic into cosplay.
Even then, I was 8, I felt dubious about turn signals. How did holding my left arm up equate to turning right? I wasn’t buying it, and I also wasn’t believing that drivers were in on this secret, a suspicion I have harbored since that day in fact. Within a week of this little crash course in not-crashing, I had abandoned my new cycling semaphore in favor of naive recklessness and a blithe disregard for my own safety.
And for a few decades, those served me pretty well. I jumped curbs, slalomed traffic, hurled myself hither and yon, and convinced myself over time that my superior reflexes made all of my maneuvers safe and that maybe, actually, I was Captain Sprocket.
Then I got hit by a car.
Don’t read too much into that. It was no great tragedy. I bounced off the front quarter panel of a Volvo wagon, zinged the clueless driver with a devastating bit of sarcasm, and then rode the adrenaline equivalent of a Super Big Gulp Mountain Dew Slurpee all the way home, where I sat down in the shower and dealt with the hormonal come down. Fin.
Up to that point, I had employed an unseen cognitive dissonance and a burgeoning hypocrisy to judge harshly any driver who dared not signal a turn, all while treating my own flight pattern as a proprietary path to which I was entitled without question. After I got hit, I did two things. First, I slowed the f&%* down. Second, I pointed to where I was going.
In the ’70s and ’80s we were told the metric system was coming. Better learn that shit good, because it’s gonna be replacing all your inches and pounds tout suite. When the jump to (lightspeed) metric never happened, I think I recast most of what I learned in those decades as, at best, misconceived and, at worst, plain wrong. And so, when I began pointing where I was going, I did not adopt the formal left-arm-out/left-arm-up paradigm, I just pointed. If possible, I made eye contact while pointing. It seemed to work. I began to get nods from appreciative drivers and pedestrians. This was akin to having a teacher you absolutely hate tell you you’re doing good work.
I felt…ambivalent, but also safer.
I don’t know how it is where you live and ride, but here in New England many drivers are not even aware that their automobile comes with a system for indicating which direction they intend to turn their machine. These people are known, colloquially, as “assholes,” or in Massachusetts “Massholes.” When I am riding my bike in traffic with other cyclists, I will often point directly at one of these “assholes,” so that everyone is aware that s/he is nearby. It’s another of cycling’s many pointy signals, like when you point out a pothole or manhole cover to the riders behind you. Sometimes, to make sure everyone is clear, I will also loudly proclaim “Heads up! Asshole there!”
Captain Sprocket didn’t teach me that one. I made it up myself.
Now, let’s review what we’ve covered here today. First, turn signals are good. They keep you safer than your reflexes and the good will of others ever could. Second, it doesn’t matter that much how you signal, as long as you do it. Third, and this was sub-text, so no worries if you missed it, if you don’t signal your turns, either on your bike or in a car, other people think you are an “asshole.” And finally, it’s never too late to stop being an asshole, unless the car that hits you is traveling much faster than the one that hit me and you failed to factor in the possibility that Captain Sprocket wouldn’t be swooping in to save you.