Hand signals, do you know them? They’re an important part of motorcycling but very few riders remember what they are and what they’re for. In many places, motorcycle hand signals are part of the learner rider curriculum but even those who have studied up on them and passed exams quickly forget exactly what arm goes where when they’re out on the road.
But why are they important? Why do riders need to know this stuff?
Since modern motorcycles are equipped with bucket loads of modern technology it seems like learning how to use your arms to signal your intent is a bit of an outdated skill. While technology has come on leaps and bounds over the past 100 years, and the build-quality of all road-legal motorcycles can be heavily relied upon, things do go wrong. Your signals could become damaged and if you’re unable to signal your intent to other road users you could cause an accident. Even if your signals work, signalling your intent with your arms can be a better indicator of your plans, particularly when you’re being followed or are leading a riding group. Knowing how to correctly employ motorcycle hand signals helps keep everyone on the road safe.
Let’s take a look at the most essential hand signals motorcycle riders should know!
The Most Important Motorcycle Hand Signals
Before we take a look at the most common hand signals for motorcycle riders, we’d just like to mention that all of these signals are performed with the left arm and left hand. The reason for this should be fairly obvious but just in case here’s why. The right hand is responsible for front braking and throttle control, it’s very important that riders keep this hand firmly in place. By removing your hand from the throttle without a throttle-stop of cruise control, your motorcycle will begin to engine-brake, which isn’t ideal in this situation, and it’s also nice to have a hand spare to cover the front brake in case of an emergency. Some riders employ right hand signals, but we’ll cover that further down.
Make A Left Turn
To signal that you’re planning to turn left, check your mirrors, perform an over-shoulder check, and extend your left arm away from your body approximately to shoulder height with your palm facing towards the road. This is a clear indication that you’re turning left and anyone following behind you should clearly understand that.
Make Right Turn
While logic would dictate that you would signal your intention to perform a right turn as the opposite was to making a left turn, it’s not as obvious as that. Since the right hand is required to control your motorcycle the task must be performed by the left hand instead. To indicate a right turn, perform your safety checks and raise your left arm outward with a 90 degree bend in the elbow, and with your clenched fist pointing upward.
Indicating that following riders should speed up is an essential one. Riding below the speed limit or at speeds that aren’t consistent with other traffic can put lives in danger. Anything that disrupts the regular flow of traffic is a hazard; riding or driving too slowly isn’t safe at all. To indicate an increase in speed, raise your left arm outwards, gesturing with your palm faced outwards, like an upward wave, and repeat the gesture.
Signalling when to speed up is important, but signalling when to slow down is even more so. While it might seem like that’s what your brake light is for, there are times when you’ll slow down without the use of your front or back brake. When slowing down and engine braking, signal to other road users your intention to slow down by extending your left arm outwards, waving your arm downwards from your shoulder towards the road, with you palm facing down. This can be used to signal your intention to slow down to other road users, and to signal any members of your riding group that a slower pace is more advisable.
Indicating that you’re planning on coming to stop is one of the most important motorcycle hand signals for motorcyclists to learn. To signal your intention to stop, simply raise your left arm with it bent downwards by 90 degrees at the elbow, with your palm open and fingers pointing toward the floor. This move is important if you’re leading a group of riders, and it’s a signal that should be passed down from one rider to the next in succession.
Pointing out hazards to fellow motorists is useful, but it’s particularly helpful to other motorcyclists on the road. If you spy a patch of loose gravel, a rock in the road, or a pothole, making other riders aware of it can prevent an accident from happening. There are two ways to signal a hazard depending on what side of you the hazard appears on. If you’re pointing out a hazard on the left, point to it with your left hand. If the hazard is located to the right-hand side of you, use your right foot to point towards the potential hazard.
Indicating Turn Signals Are Still On
No matter how experienced a rider is, there will inevitably be a time that they forget to properly cancel their turn signals. It happens to everyone every now and again. If you notice another rider riding with their turn signals still blinking, simple extend your left arm out to the side, clenching and opening your fist alternately, like a blinking gesture. Any passing or following motorists will check their signals, and remedy the problem. Riding whilst giving the wrong signals can cause confusion on the road, which could result in an accident.
These are the motorcycle hand signals that we consider to be the most important – but there are more. Below we’ve put together a short list of some of the more niche signals used for riding in groups or for pointing out specific commands.
Common Motorcycle Hand Signals For Group Riding
Being able to communicate with your fellow riders is useful, and it’s even more important if you find yourself riding at the head of a column. Even if you’re not into group riding there will come a time when you have to lead another road user to a destination, so here are a few signals and gestures that are worth knowing.
There are a variety of reasons you may need to signal other riders to follow you when you’re on the road. If you were riding as part of the group but are now taking the lead, or if you’re leading half of that group to a different destination. The universal way to signal other riders to follow you is by raising your left arm in front of you to just above shoulder height, with your hand extended and palm facing forward.
This one can mean a couple of things depending on how you use it. Most commonly, it’s used to signal another rider to take the lead. However, it can also be used to reinforce the “follow me” if you need it to. The signal works when you pull up alongside the rider in question and point to their bike with your left hand and swing your arm forward in the direction of travel. This essentially means “You go first,” if you drop behind them after, or “you, follow me” if you make the gesture and pull ahead.
Almost exclusively for highway riding, this hand gesture it to signal to riders following you that the group will be taking the next exit from the highway. This move is a simple point with your left arm and hand, usually to the sign that displays the exit, and then moving it above your head indicating the side of the road. This gesture is pretty much only used for indicating the need to pull off of a highway, rather than other reasons for pulling over.
To request that your riding group follows behind you in single file, use this simple gesture to literally get your group into line. Raise you left arm upwards from the shoulder with a slight bend in the arm, with your index finger pointed upwards. The raised finger should indicate that the riders following should ride in single file. Make sure to get this one right, because you don’t want all of your following riders to suddenly look upf and wonder what you’re pointing at!
To indicate that you would like your following riders to follow in a double file riding arrangement, simply bend your left arm a the elbow, and point upwards with your index and middle fingers. The fingers should form an obvious “v” shape, which will appear as you signalling “two” to let your fellow riders know what you’re trying to say.
Comfort Or Refreshment Stop
It’s important to know how to signal to your riding group that you plan to pull over and stop for a rest. The correct way of doing this it to signal with your left hand, whilst shaking your fist. The shaking motion should resemble and up and down motion, similar to if you were shaking an aerosol or mixing a drink. The hand signal should only be used when you’re 100% sure that you can stop somewhere safely, with ample room, and away from any debris or other dangers.
A refreshment stop signal is slightly different. Using your left arm, make a thumbs up gesture with your left hand, and bring your thumb towards your helmet. Imagine your thumb is a drinking straw, and you can see how the gesture translates into “we’re stopping for drinks!”
Fueling Up Time
If you’re low on fuel or suspect that other members of your riding group are probably approaching empty, signal your intention to pull into the next gas station by pointing at your fuel tank with your left index finger. Make this gesture a number of times to make your intention obvious, and to ensure that no following riders miss the turn off. Keeping fuel levels high is important when you’re riding in a group. Running out of fuel is embarrassing enough when you’re on your own!
By gently patting the top of your helmet with your left palm you can alert other road users and your riding group of any police activity that you might have spotted up ahead. This might seem like a controversial gesture, but it doesn’t have to be. Sure, it might keep unruly riders from breaking the law in front of police, but it also ensures that your group exercises extreme caution when riding by. The police may be at the scene of an accident or crime, or paramedics may be trying to save a life. This signal ensures that your group rides appropriately, without putting anyone in unnecessary danger.
Why Do It This Way?
Using hand signals to signal your intent is an important skill to know. But why do we do it this way? Well, it should be obvious. When riding a motorcycle there are very few parts of the body that we can use to properly signal our intent. Our left foot controls our gear selection, our right foot covers our rear brake. Our right hand controls the throttle and covers the front brake, while the left is only required to steady the handlebar and use the clutch. Our heads should be busy looking at where we want to go. With all of that in mind, it’s obvious that the only available appendage that we can use it the left arm, and occasionally the left foot. That’s why all of the signalling is performed with our left arm and leg. That’s not always the case though.
In some countries, people indicate their intentions in other ways. It’s not unheard of for a rider to extend their right arm straight out when indicating a right turn. This can only be done if they compensate for engine braking though. It might be a more obvious signal, but it’s not necessarily a safer one. Sure, the right turn intention is obvious, but it leaves the rider on a motorcycle that’s continuously getting slower, and without any coverage of a front brake in case something unexpected happens.
What about cyclists though? Most cyclists use exactly the same kind of hand signals, employed in the same way. Right turns, like the one we just mentioned above, they can be signaled by a right arm indication though. Since bicycles don’t require a throttle to be twisted to provide propulsion, it’s safe enough for a cyclist to use their right arm. As bicycles don’t travel as fast as motorcycles, the need to completely cover the front brake isn’t there either. Still, it’s always best to use the signal type that feels safest.
Besides, most motorcycles will have functional indicators, so theoretically you may never ever need to use any of these signals. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know them! There’s always going to be something new to learn, and you should try and absorb as much information as you can! Would you rather that your brain absorbed some new information or an impact in an accident scenario?
Motorcycle Hand Signals FAQ
Is it illegal to use a motorcycle hand signal instead of a blinker?
Providing that you’re signalling your intentions safely and clearly, it is completely legal to use a hand signal. Can you use them instead of a blinker? Of course you can. There’s nothing stopping you from signaling by hand instead of by blinker, but it’s probably safer to use the more widely recognized blinker signal instead. There’s nothing stopping you from using both though, which could be safer for everyone. In other countries, particularly in South East Asia, it’s common to see riders using both a blinker and a hand signal. A strong arm reaching out tends to put off any would-be overtakers who are too impatient to wait for you to take your turn safely!
Is it a legal requirement for riders to know all of these hand signals?
The answer to this question depends on where you come from and what your local laws and learner curriculum state. In some places, just being aware that hand signals exist is more than enough to satisfy the local licensing authorities. In others, it’s a strict part of the learner curriculum and could be tested during a motorcycle licensing examination. There are absolutely no negative effects to going the extra mile and learning them, regardless of whether you need to or not, so we heartily recommend you study up on the most important motorcycle hand signals.
If I’m leading the group, do I have to signal with my arms?
It all depends on how your group operates, but generally the answer is yes. If you’re riding in a large group, the riders towards the back of the pack might not have great visuals on what you’re intending to do. A blinker signal might not be visible from the back of the group. The weather might be too bright for it to be seen, or riders further up the column might be obscuring it. That’s why a highly visible arm is always a safer bet. Plus, arms can signal more than just left and right turns. It’s quite difficult to tell your fellow riders that you need to use the bathroom by blinker signals alone…
Can I invent a new motorcycle hand signal?
Sure, but don’t expect other road users to know that you’re trying to signal. It’s fine to come up with your own signals to alert your own riding group about things, but it’s important that you tell them what that signal is before you use it, or no one will know what you’re trying to say. Also, any hand gesture that you invent won’t be understood by anyone else apart from those who you’ve told about it. You can’t say “but I signaled and he hit me” if your signal was one arm performing the backstroke in super-fast motion. That won’t hold up in court at all.
Do I have to wave at other bikers?
No. Only if you want to. There are riders out there who get offended if you don’t wave. Other riders think it’s weird to wave at a stranger because they also operate the same kind of vehicle as you. Imagine car drivers waving at each other when they pass another person driving a car. It would be strange. It’s totally up to you. But you should never feel obliged to do anything that you don’t want to do. And any rider who gets angry because someone didn’t wave at them…well, that says more about them than it does about you, doesn’t it?
Motorcycle Hand Signal: In Summary
Riding a motorcycle is a continuous learning process, and that’s what makes it so much fun. There’s always something new to learn, from improving your clutch control to learning how to properly perform hand signals. Whether or not it’s a legal requirement to learn how to perform these signals, you should still learn how to perform them, because you never know when they might come in handy. A fuse powering your blinkers might go and leave you in the lurch, or you might be asked to lead a ride someday. Either way, learning these signals could help you out in the future! So it’s totally worth it!