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Why are cyclists in the US expected (or required) to signal "Stop" with the palm of their left hand?

If I'm stopping or slowing down, I'm using my front brake. The brake operated by my left hand.

The majority of braking is best done with your left hand, operating the front brake. See here: https://www.sheldonbrown.com/brakturn.html "Skilled cyclists use the front brake alone probably 95% of the time"

So, why the traffic laws & general expectation that you signal stop with your left hand?

[It seems like it would be better to signal "Stop" with your left hand while operating the front brake with your right hand.]

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    Time to clean up comments - if you're upset that your comment got deleted, then make it as an answer instead. Comments are for Clarification and Improvement of the question/answer. Comments are not for general discussion. And you don't earn rep for comment upvotes.
    – Criggie
    Dec 22 '20 at 10:38
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    Huh. I was taught to use my rear brake (right) because if you need to stop suddenly you're less likely to fly over the handlebars. Maybe that was good advice for a child learning to cycle, and I should have dismissed it since.
    – pxeger
    Dec 22 '20 at 20:26
  • I find that statement by Sheldon Brown to be opinionated. Most braking situations (maybe 60%) could be accomplish with either brake alone. I would say that "95% of braking situations can be accomplished by the front brake alone" is more accurate.
    – jpaugh
    Dec 23 '20 at 11:38
  • In fact, I tend to use the back brake alone, not because I can't use the front-brake, but for the same reason I keep distance from other traffic in a car --- either I have something else to think about, or I'm not fully alert at the moment.
    – jpaugh
    Dec 23 '20 at 11:42
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A historic reason why signaling is with the left hand in the US is because motor vehicle drivers sit on the left side of the vehicle in the US and must signal with the left hand out their left window if their signal lights are broken (or when driving before turn signals existed). If they signaled with their right hand, it would be inside the car and wouldn't be visible to other drivers. This practice likely carried over to cyclists.

Here's an article that describes the historic reasons why some bicycles have the front brake on the left hand, while others use the right:

In the U.S., the law requires that all bikes are sold with the left hand controlling the front brake, and the right hand the rear brake. It’s the same in France. In Italy and Great Britain, it’s the other way around.

Many myths surround the reasons for these differences, but history is the most likely explanation: Early bikes had only a rear brake. In France, this usually was a rim brake. The early brakes were not very powerful, so you needed lots of hand power to stop the bike. Most people are right-handed, and it made sense to control the single brake with the right hand. In Italy and Britain, the single brake was a coaster brake, and there was no brake lever at all. When front brakes were added to bikes sometime in the 20th century, this required adding a brake lever to the handlebars. In France, the right side was taken, so they mounted the extra lever on the left (above). In “coaster-brake countries,” the handlebars were still empty, so the brake lever for the front brake went on the right side (below). When racers started using rim brakes on both wheels, the extra brake lever (for the rear wheel) went on the left side.

The U.S. copied French practice – probably because Schwinn was the only company importing performance bikes with hand brakes, and Schwinn was influenced by French bicycles.

(emphasis added by me)

The fact that early bikes in the US didn't have a left hand brake is further justification why the left hand was used for signaling.

The article continues to list some pros and cons about having the front break on the left or the right and is a good read if you have the time.

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    Some interesting history there. Good find. Dec 22 '20 at 15:45
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    Nice research! From Jan Hein to boot! I remember working with some "Schwinn Approved" French parts, but I never realized the overall influence French cycling had on Schwinn. Dec 22 '20 at 20:31
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    I don't agree with the claim that early bikes only had a (manual) rear brake. Bikes even after 1900 had plunger brakes and possibly early versions of rim brakes. None of them operated with cables but instead with some sort of lever system, which obviously can only operation in the front, not the back. I read on some bike history page that pull cable rim brakes (sorry, don't have the link) were developed ~50 years ago. By that time I suspect those signaling habits had long formed. So this really doesn't have anything to do with rear brakes IMO.
    – Christoph
    Dec 22 '20 at 21:14
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    @Christoph The Jan Hein article is a history of why front brakes are on the left in the US, rather than a history of which hand we signal with. Like you said, those signalling conventions probably developed earlier than France's dominance in the industry. I honestly don't know, but it would be really interesting to figure out which hand operated those early rod brakes! Dec 23 '20 at 4:20
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In the US, you ride in the right lane as far right as you can unless you are "taking the lane," which is legal in some states under some conditions (e.g. no bike lane, debris on shoulder, not safe for car and bike to split a line - which in my opinion is never safe).

By signaling with your left hand, your hand is going to be more in the line of sight of drivers vs. your right hand which will be harder to see since you already are to the right of the road and even possibly in the shoulder area.

At the end of the day, you will probably never get a ticket for signaling with the wrong hand or not signaling at all, just do what you feel is safest for the situation.

In my opinion, a visible flashing rear light probably is going to catch the attention of a driver more than any hand signal unless flipping them the bird... just saying. I would not consider riding even on the shoulder of any road without effective visibility lighting (e.g. stuff from Bontrager has pretty good flash patterns to catch people's attention)

Regarding benefits of front vs. rear brake on bikes, yes it is true that the front brake is more effective for any 2 wheel vehicle like a bike or motorcycle. Furthermore, using both in unison is the most effective overall. With that said, most people on a bike are traveling at slower speeds than a motorcycle and so you can certainly stop a bike safely with just the rear brake. In fact, I usually drop most of my speed using both brakes and come to a final stop with just the rear because the rear brake at slow speed does not cause as much instability as the front (note the same can be said for a motorcycle in a parking lot where a lot of people use the rear brake only to control speed). Some of that is personal preference too.

Here is an example of a ride on a US road where I am taking the right most lane and if I was to signal my left hand would be most visible to a driver behind me:

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    You could swap brake leaver functions by swapping cable end points for your brakes as long as you have enough cable to run to the other lever. Dec 20 '20 at 18:54
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    @Jean-PaulLacy It’s definitely possible: some MTB riders ride dirt bikes/MX bikes as well, and those have right=front brakes. I hear that your brain adapts pretty easily.
    – MaplePanda
    Dec 20 '20 at 19:27
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    Its not just 2 wheel vehicles that have more effective braking from the front wheels, its just that 4 wheel vehicles tend to have one 'lever' to operate them (without engineering designed to bias the amount of braking between front and back, a car would almost always lockup the rear wheels under heavy braking), and lockup of front wheels is not as catastrophic as a two wheel vehicle.
    – mattnz
    Dec 20 '20 at 20:01
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    Downvoted for suggesting flashing lights. As a driver, I hate those: sure, it's clear that there's something in the road somewhere ahead of me, but I can't track them and figure out where the light is and which way it's going the way I can with steady lights.
    – Mark
    Dec 21 '20 at 23:45
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    @Mark - Part of the reason those lights have flash patterns is to stand out from normal brake lights and also prevent someone from zoning out when processing what the light is. Bontrager worked with Baylor University designing a unique pattern that achieved those goals. More advanced lights adjust brightness at night to avoid blinding drivers/causing issues with judging distance due to night blindness. You can hate them I suppose, but a light undoubtedly makes a rider more visible during the day or night and arguably more visible than a hand signal at night with the naked hand. Dec 22 '20 at 0:55
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Why are cyclists in the US expected (or required) to signal "Stop" with the palm of their left hand?

Consistency. All vehicles on the road are expected/required to use the same signals - for the most part, the same laws apply to all vehicles on the road.

For example (from https://www.caranddriver.com/features/a26789192/hand-driving-signals/):

enter image description here

Signalling with the right hand is impossible for drivers of motor vehicles in the US because the driver is located on the left side of the vehicle.

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  • But (in right hand traffic) you wouldn’t use your left indicator lights to signal stopping in a car. You’d use the right ones and drive onto the right shoulder.
    – Michael
    Dec 21 '20 at 12:58
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    @Michael No, your brake lights would come on when you stop. Absent brake lights, however, hand signals are required Dec 21 '20 at 13:31
  • Which makes me wonder what happens if you don't have the use of your left hand? (In a cast, amputee, etc.) These conditions do not preclude you from driving a car (or riding a bike), but it would cause problems with signaling. I guess in a car you just have to make sure all your signal lights work. On a bike it'd be a serious problem because you'd have to go no-handed to signal with your right... Dec 21 '20 at 20:16
  • There's possibly another separate question here about "what is the correct signal for stop?" and why is there more than one? because that picture looks like someone with a hot hand who is hanging it in the breeze for cooling, to me. It is not a recognised signal for "I'm stopping" for me.
    – Criggie
    Dec 22 '20 at 10:43
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    The hand signals for turns and stops pre-date mandatory signal lights on vehicles, and as recently as the 1980s were part of the driver's license test in at least one US state. (I moved round then; not sure which one.)
    – arp
    Dec 22 '20 at 17:32
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Although the front brake is indeed more effective, you generally don't need full braking power while stopping or slowing in traffic. It's also rare in my experience to see lone cyclists signaling for stops. In group riding though, it's more common since you don't want to get rear-ended by the rider drafting you.

Personally, I downshift and brake after I signal, usually on right turns (Canada). I think it's safer to give drivers a bit of advance warning. You could probably do the same for braking: signal, then use both hands to brake afterwards.

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    @Jean-PaulLacy Even in a group, it's still a good idea to use the left hand so car drivers can see the signal. In a panic stop, you have bigger issues than signaling a stop. Use both brakes.
    – MaplePanda
    Dec 20 '20 at 20:00
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    Good point about driver/group visibility! Dec 20 '20 at 21:06
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    I misused the term "panic stop." Pretend you're riding a one lane road, come upon a blind curve & take the lane for safety's sake. You hear a car revving up to pass you. You see a logging truck coming around around the curve. In that situation, I'd like to signal "Stop" while I brake quickly & get over before I turn into collateral damage. Dec 21 '20 at 0:43
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    @Jean-PaulLacy - I ride a road very much like that frequently (youtu.be/QpktujE7VOM?t=294). In the scenario you describe above, I would not worry about signaling. This is why an always on rear flashing light helps make your presence known. In an emergency like that you simply focus on controlling the bike. Times to signal are when you have time to let traffic behind you know you are slowing like for a sharp turn onto another road. Another time I signal is to let traffic know behind me that I am going to enter a lane to my left like if I need to make a left turn. Dec 21 '20 at 3:29
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    @TudeProductions Understood, in those situations your own safety definitely comes first. My thinking is sometimes you just get off the road, sometimes, if you have time & space, it's safer to prevent a bad accident. Visibility is a very good point. It's interesting that here, in the PNW, everyone runs their lights full on all the time. It rains heavily 9 months a year & the theory is that it's hard for motorists to see exactly where a blinking light is. Both blinking & solid lights are optimal, but not many people like charging 3 devices. Dec 21 '20 at 4:49
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The brake operated by my left hand.

Ah yes, pet peeve of mine. That's a very poorly-considered default configuration that you can easily fix.

I switch cables around so that I can brake the front wheel with my right hand while signaling.

This is sometimes useful when going down a fairly steep hill and making a turn.

Not only that, but also because I'm right handed, and it's it's obvious to me that the dominant hand should operate that brake which provides the most stopping power.

Edit: Yes! I just read that good old Sheldon Brown did exactly the same thing, and I'm aware that on motorcycles, right hand controls the front brake also. If I ever get into motorcycles, I wouldn't want to be confused: that could be deadly.

About hand signals, where I live, cyclist hand signals are the same as motorist hand signals. Motorist hand signals must necessarily use the left hand, because the majority of the vehicles are left-hand-drive.

For a cyclist riding on the right side of the road, it makes sense to use the traffic-side arm for signaling, because that is most visible to motorists.

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  • It does make perfect sense to hand signal on the traffic side! I should have worded the question better to express my curiosity about how we arrived at left-front braking, not just my annoyance. Have you always run your front brake to the right lever, or did you go through a 'break-in' period? Dec 21 '20 at 6:23
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    i do the same thing with my brake setup on some bikes: front brake on the right. (I am in the US) I purchased a Dutch omafiets secondhand several years ago and this was how it was set up from the factory apparently. Dec 21 '20 at 19:37
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    Since I also ride motorcycles, I have been doing this (making the right lever the front brake) with my bikes since forever. It eliminates confusion for me, but not for anyone who gets on my bike! Dec 22 '20 at 0:58
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    Generally speaking, countries where traffic travels on the left side of the road have bike front brakes on the right hand side, and vise versa. So Japan, the British Commonwealth frequently have right-hand front brakes, whereas much of the Americas, much of Africa, and Europe/Russia/Asia all tend to be left-hand front brake.
    – Criggie
    Dec 22 '20 at 10:36
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    +1 for advising to change the configuration (unless the rider is left-handed). As to riding on the right side of the road, well, that's dangerous. You'll get overtaken with as little as 20cm lateral distance, a lot. I believe it's better to just take your lane, noone's allowed to overtake you without leaving the lane anyways. And when you are squarely in the middle of the lane, it does not really matter that much which hand you use for signalling. The dangerous drivers will ignore your signalling at any level of visibility anyways. Dec 22 '20 at 21:01
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As far as brake power is concerned, it's not really relevant whether the remaining hand operates the rear or front brake – with just one hand, you're limited by the fact that you need to brace your upper body one-handed against the handlebar without turning it.

For a right-handed person, having the right hand on the handlebar should even allow for slightly higher braking forces.

But in general, I would always signal first and then brake, and if that's not possible, just omit the signal.

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    Concur, if anything I prefer slowing with the back brake if/while signalling to retain good control of steering. Good advice I think
    – Swifty
    Dec 22 '20 at 13:24
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Here in Austria (and everywhere else in Europe) I’ve never heard of any requirement/recommendation to signal braking with your left hand.

When I want to stop on a straight road I signal with my right hand because I’m going to the right onto the shoulder of the road, just like you’d do in a car.

Some rear lights have a brake light function. They increase brightness or blink when they detect deceleration (using an accelerometer).

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    Bulgaria here (pretty much similar to traffic regulations everywhere in Europe and Asia). Vehicles that lack rear stoplights (including bicycles) are required to signal braking with left hand.
    – fraxinus
    Dec 21 '20 at 14:42
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    I thing this is the usual way in Europe. However, it does not really answer the question why they have such a silly requirement in USA.
    – Vladimir F
    Dec 21 '20 at 15:45
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    Seeing how people ride, I'm also not that sure it's a requirement. If you're traveling in a bike lane, then you are in a different lane from the vehicles. If you're riding to the right, similar issue. If you're riding in a group, it's much more frequent to verbally call out "stopping" or "slowing", or just rely on shared understanding if you're in a town line sprint situation.
    – Weiwen Ng
    Dec 21 '20 at 17:34
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    French here. We never signal a when braking on a bike. I have literally never seen that in my life (and I bike a lot) and would actually wonder what the sign means. We do signal when we want to turn (left or right). This said the idea of the accelerometer and an extra light is great (I will have a look where this is available to buy).
    – WoJ
    Dec 22 '20 at 15:56
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    We were told to signal with our hand back in school in the Netherlands, almost 50 years back, but I do not think it was with one or the other hand. And when I use the signal I do it with left if I have a group behind me I need to warn and with the right if I am going to stop on that side of the road, alone. But most of the time I will not signal a stop.
    – Willeke
    Dec 23 '20 at 18:10

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