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I am just starting to cycle on the road and I'm wondering if cyclists are legally required to use hand signals or if they are optional (i.e. recommended but you won't get into trouble if you don't use them).

Sometimes I am able to signal but other times I cannot signal without risking falling over. Is it OK to ride without signaling provided that I am careful about making sure that drivers understand my intentions in one way or another (e.g. slowing down, looking in a particular direction, moving across the lane or starting to turn) or do I have to stay off the road until I can signal more confidently?

  • Do you have the right bike? I never felt right signalling when growing up, riding a folding bike. When I got a standard sit-up and beg ladies frame I learned it was not me, it had been the bike all along. – Willeke Mar 29 '18 at 19:07
  • @Willeke It's not a folding bike. I think the seat isn't in quite the right place though, and I never thought to fit it after I upgraded/replaced some parts (including the seat) last year. As I was only doing a small bit of casual cycling at the time it didn't really matter but now that I plan to start using the bicycle more regularly I will adjust the seat when I next get the chance (i.e. next time it's not raining and I feel like messing around with the bicycle). – Micheal Johnson Mar 30 '18 at 21:55
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They're in the highway code, but the word "must" isn't used in the online version or my paper copy from 1999, which states:

Turning right

155. Well before you turn right you should

Use your mirrors...

Give a right turn signal

A cycling-specific rule is 52 in my copy (67 in a more recent edition):

52. You should

  • look all around before moving away from the kerb, turning or manoeuvring, to make sure it is safe to do so. Give a signal to show other road users what you intend to do.

We could argue about whether the should applies to giving a signal -- it certainly would if it was in the first sentence of that bullet point, or a bullet point in its own right, but we dont need to: in the context of the highway code, context must means a legal requirement, while should means if you don't and there's an accident you're likely to get at least some blame.

So no, you're not obliged to.

In fact, in one of these cases (moving away from the kerb) I tend not signal -- because I wait for a big gap, then as the vehicle at the front of the gap passes me, I accelerate hard, with both hands on the bars for control and changing up through the gears. Signalling after it's passed wastes some of the gap, and theres often no room to signal while it's passing (signalling before it passes would only confuse its driver).

However if there might possibly be traffic about, it's a really good idea, especially signalling right, as that means you're about to move into the path of faster vehicles. If you're right handed this may take some practice. So practice somewhere quiet; you'll soon get the hang of it. Try riding left handed with your right hand near the bars, for example. Until you can confidently signal right there may be cases where the only way to go right safely is to stop and cross like a pedestrian.

Never ever assume that drivers react to you looking round. Hardly any will notice, and they may take their eyes of the road to see what you're looking at. Even with helmet lights that clearly indicate me turning my head (red rear, amber sides) I've often been overtaken while getting ready for a right signal.

Drivers don't understand cyclists' speed. You're going so slowly from their point of view that you'd have to be down to walking pace for them to notice. Moving out into the lane can help. But you need a good couple of hundred metres gap and visibility even at 30 mph -- I'd signal then too.

A comment on my answer to a related question confirmed that a slowing down signal is very rare. So don't worry about that one.

  • I don;t want to put anyone off, but I deliberately concentrate on unaware drivers, which are the ones we need to worry about, even if they're a minority. The good ones may need no more than a wave of thanks (and recognition, they're probably cyclists or motorcyclists themselves) but it doesn;t hurt to help them to help you. – Chris H Mar 26 '18 at 20:19
  • By the way I learnt to ride as an adult, and took the bike in the car a couple of times to a long stretch of bike path where I could ride one-handed for a few minutes at a time. – Chris H Mar 27 '18 at 5:59
  • Thanks for quoting your printed copy of the highway code. I found that webpage yesterday before I posted the question but it doesn't contain any of the "must"/"should" language that I was looking for. It seems to be more about informing readers of what the different signals are and when to use them rather than what is and isn't a legal requirement or recommendation. – Micheal Johnson Mar 27 '18 at 10:36
  • @MichealJohnson, yes they seem to want money off you to get old of a copy of the actual text that tells you what you have to do. The pictures online are the same as in my copy. – Chris H Mar 27 '18 at 11:08
  • Actually, I think signalling is a "should". Rule 67 says "You should: • look all around before moving away from the kerb, turning or manoeuvring, to make sure it is safe to do so. Give a clear signal to show other road users what you intend to do (see ‘Signals to other road users’)" Given the formatting ("You should:" followed by several bullets), I believe "Give a clear signal" is intended as a continuation of "You should:" It would be nice if it was clearer, though. – David Richerby Mar 27 '18 at 22:35
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If you feel that signalling puts you in danger of falling off your bike, are you really sufficiently stable on it to be safe in traffic? The wind can easily upset you much more than sticking your hand out. Or the turbulence from a vehicle passing too close.

It's probably a lack of confidence than a lack of ability. Being able to ride the bike is the hard part and you can already do that; going from riding with two hands to riding with one hand doesn't take much more. Practise on a quiet street with a decent surface, riding at a comfortable pace (it's harder to balance when you're moving slowly). To start with, just release your grip of the handlebar with one of your hands, with your palm still on the bar. Once you're confident that this actually does nothing at all, lift your hand just above the bar – you can grab the bar again in a fraction of a second if you need to. Then take your hand further and further from the bar. Then try sticking it out to the side. You just signalled! (So best check there's nobody around who'll misunderstand that.)

Don't assume that anything other than signalling will alert drivers or even other cyclists to your intentions.

  • If you slow down, most other road users won't notice, unless they have to slow down, too. If they do notice, they'll think, "Oh, he's slowing down," not "Oh, he's going to turn left/right."

  • You're supposed to be looking around the whole time because that's the only way to be fully aware of your surroundings. Looking around says nothing to other road users, even if they notice, which they won't.

  • Moving across the lane or turning doesn't replace signalling: it's the thing you're supposed to signal! Asking if you can use manoeuvring instead of signalling is just asking "Is it OK to not signal?"

  • I will be practicing riding with one hand and learning to signal confidently soon but unfortunately where I live I have to cycle on the road for at least a few minutes to get to any off-road paths, hence my question. – Micheal Johnson Mar 27 '18 at 10:39
  • In general I am stable on the bicycle. It's just that signaling moves one's center of gravity off to the side of the bicycle so one would naturally fall over if one rode with one's arm out (unlike riding normally where the bicycle naturally balances itself). This is really my issue rather than concern over taking my hand off the handlebars. – Micheal Johnson Mar 27 '18 at 10:41
  • Your arm is a small fraction of your body mass and it makes very little difference to your centre of gravity. Stand one one leg and stick your arm out -- nothing happens. – David Richerby Mar 27 '18 at 12:39
  • I'm just going on what happened yesterday (that prompted this question). I stuck my arm out to signal and next thing I was leaning very far to the right. – Micheal Johnson Mar 27 '18 at 17:04
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Pilots have a concept of Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. This is the order of priority for them.

To restate for bicycling it could be Balance, Avoid Obstacles, Signal Intent.

I don't know whether it is strictly required legally for you to signal, but I'd suggest the practical reality is that you only signal when it is safe to do so and communicating with vehicles behind you could increase your safety.

For example, I wouldn't signal stopping or turning left, but generally would signal turning right (in the UK context) well in advance so the car immediately behind me knows what I'm about to do.

  • I've spent 15 years cycling in Oxford and Cambridge, two of the UK's biggest cycling cities. I've never even once seen somebody signal that they were stopping. However, if you can safely signal to turn right, there really is no reason not to signal left turns, too. Pedestrians who want to cross that road need to know. Cars and other cyclists behind you might decide not to overtake when they know you'll be out of the way in a few seconds. – David Richerby Mar 27 '18 at 22:26
  • @DavidRicherby I guess the left turns are a little more in your control - you don't have to cross traffic. I do occasionally signal left, especially if there are, as you say, a lot of pedestrians, or if I'll need to brake hard to make the corner. Sydney traffic, FYI! Stopping seems to be reserved for peletons – Byron Ross Mar 28 '18 at 2:28
  • The big difference is that aviators generally don't have to worry about things coming up behind much faster than them. If there are vehicles behind (within a few seconds driving time), communicating with them will always increase your safety; hitting a massive pothole with one hand on the bars may cause you to crash, but that's an argument for planning your signalling well in advance, not for not signalling. Actually the worst case is often that cars are passing too close to signal safely when you need to. – Chris H Mar 28 '18 at 9:54
  • @ChrisH As an aviator, the only thing you can do about people behind you is worry: planes don't have mirrors. – David Richerby Mar 28 '18 at 13:28
  • @DavidRicherby they don't, but that's because there are other systems for stopping 747s running into the back of Cessnas (mainly procedural/ATC) – Chris H Mar 28 '18 at 14:26

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