Robot’s Useless Reviews – Turn Signals

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.

To be clear, I didn’t own a helmet until I was 25.

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.

What I want to be clear, at this point, is that I am not featuring in this piece of writing as the “hero” or even as the “anti-hero,” but more as an “object lesson” in oblivious ignorance.

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.

Join the conversation
  1. bart says

    I’ve long thought that the left arm bent and pointed up thing made no sense. Especially if you’re riding a bike that has any drop between saddle and handlebars. In that case, it’s bent and pointing mostly forward which is just confusing. I tend to use the right arm pointing right and that seems to work well for right turns.

  2. TominAlbany says

    I don’t have proof but, I think the left arm up for right turn came about when they installed roofs on cars but no turn signals. Simply pointing to the right wouldn’t be visible so they switched to arm up. Might be wrong but it makes sense to me. Also, since the cars are coming up on my left, I use the arm they’re most likely to see so, I dork it up by doing the left arm up signal – unless I’ve taken the lane. Then I point with my left or right as needed.

    My signal that I created for myself is ‘left arm straight out, hand fully opened, palm facing rear. I use it to signal cars that are about to swing wide and pass me on a blind curve/quick riser of a hill that there’s an on-coming car and they should wait 20 seconds before they enter the wrong lane. That usually works fairly well and I get minimal flack for it and, occasionally, a thank you wave.

  3. khal spencer says

    I use a right arm out straight for a right turn and a left arm out straight for a left turn. Makes more sense and for an old coot with a bad back on a drop bar bike, its just easier. Braking is the left arm down. I don’t even know if motorists know what that last one means since no one seems to teach driving any more.

    I suspect the left arm up 90 degrees is because a motorist in a car doesn’t have an arm long enough to stick out the passenger window. It doesn’t work on a motorcycle unless you have cruise control since the right hand works the throttle and front brake. So I use the “car right turn” hand signal for a right turn on the bike, in addition to the turn signal. Just for added emphasis.

    Something funny happened a few weeks ago. I wanted to make a left turn from West Alameda onto Guadalupe in Santa Fe so I looked over my left shoulder to check for overtaking cars, signalled, changed lanes to the left turn lane, and got to the intersection just as it turned red, so I stopped. This big SUV pulled up on my right and the window came down, revealing this old coot that looked from his wardrobe like he had just showed up from a silver mine looking to quench his thirst in the big city. I thought “Ok, here comes the lecture, whatever it is about”. Instead, the old guy said “Thank you. you did a great job of letting me know what you were about to do and then you did it.” I was kinda taken aback. I thanked him, too, for being a nice guy. One old coot to another.

  4. yojo says

    I got hit by car from back recently while turning right and signaling with right hand. Driver neither police officer did not know its legal, police officer even let the driver leave while my injuries were treated in an emergency car. Tried to blame me from improper signalling, saying that only left hand can be used for signaling. I had to show him DMW handbook. 🙁

  5. southcarolinamtb says

    Yojo brings up a good point. Legal signals are what we need to do; although they may not be the most effective at communicating our direction. I’d say 90% of the time, if i give the bent left arm signal in a paceline to indicate that we are turning right soon, the darn cyclists behind me don’t even know what we are doing, let alone the drivers. So, pointing right (not legal in our state) is more recognizable for them.
    Pointing left has somehow become interpreted as feel free to pass me on the left (as I am now trying to turn left!). That’s happened twice in the last 3 years. So, that Khal’s comment about people learning to drive, or not.
    I love the response he got from the Old Coot. gosh, there must be a lot of former dirt rag readers out there.

  6. marcgregor says

    In France, it is straight right arm. I grew up there before moving to the US … And i can’t really switch – I tried until I realized that for many puting one arm up is more synonym to “we all need to stop” aka international army sign…

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