When and How to Use Hand Signals for Driving

When you’re on the road, it’s crucial to let other drivers know what you plan to do next. For this purpose, you’ll use the turn signals, or blinkers, on the lever next to the steering. But there are situations where technology can fail you, and that’s why you need to know the three basic hand signals for driving.

Section 22108 of the California Vehicle Code requires motorists to signal at least 100 feet before turning or changing lanes. Think of it as a way of communicating with other road users, including motorists, cyclists, or even pedestrians. 

Not only does this practice ensure a smooth traffic flow, but it can also increase road safety. Just like electric turn signals, hand signals could help you prevent a collision and save lives.

Hand Signals for Driving 101: What They Are and Why They Matter

Let’s say you’re driving on a highway, and you need to change lanes to exit. You check your mirrors and start moving over, but you forget to signal your intention. 

The driver in the adjacent lane doesn’t anticipate your move, so he must either brake suddenly or swerve to avoid a crash. If he’s not fast enough, he’ll run into your car. This wouldn’t have happened if you signaled your lane change

Unsafe lane change

In the above scenario, you could have used either hand signals or the blinkers on your car. Both serve the same purpose, allowing road users to communicate their intentions. 

Hand signals are gestures drivers use to tell others whether they’ll turn right or left, stop, or slow down. They are universally recognized and can be a lifesaver when your blinkers or brake lights don’t work. 

Drivers Have Been Using Hand Signals for Centuries

The first automobile was invented in 1886, but it took several decades for manufacturers to equip cars with turn signals.

According to the New York Times, Percy Douglas-Hamilton was the one who created an early version of this device in 1909. He patented his invention, but the world wasn’t ready for it. 

In 1914, actress Florence Lawrence came up with a new version of the turn signal. However, her invention has not been patented or used by the public. 

Over the next few years, several other versions were launched, but again, consumers were simply not interested in them. The same goes for the turn signals offered as a standard feature on Buick cars in 1939 and beyond. 

This technology started to gain traction in the early to mid-1950s. But everyone used hand signals up to that point. 

Today’s drivers and other road users still rely on hand signals. They’re simple, convenient, and easy to interpret, serving as a universal way to communicate in traffic. 

These hand gestures can be particularly useful when driving in bad weather or on busy roads where visibility is limited. Plus, they’re often easier to understand by pedestrians, especially children and seniors, than electric turn signals. 

Hand Signals

When to Use Hand Signals

As mentioned earlier, it’s necessary to use hand signals when your vehicle’s turn signals and/or light brakes don’t work. 

However, there are several other situations where hand signals can be useful. Let’s see a few examples:

  • You’re driving a vintage car
  • When you’re changing lanes on a busy road
  • When driving in bright sunlight 
  • When your turn signal lights are obscured by other cars
  • In low-visibility conditions, such as when there is snow or fog

In some cases, you may use both hand signals and electric turn signals to communicate your intentions more clearly. 

Say you’re driving in a high-traffic area and want to merge into a crowded lane. 

In such cases, the heavy traffic or potential blind spots could prevent other drivers from seeing your turn signal lights. 

Therefore, you may extend your hand out of the window and point in the direction you intend to move. You’ll also use your vehicle’s turn signals, but your hand gestures will act as a backup. 

When to Use Hand Signals

How to Use Hand Signals in Traffic 

California law requires drivers to use hand signals whenever necessary. These should be given from the left side of the vehicle and include the following:

  • Right turn: Stick your left arm out of the window and then bend it upward from the elbow at a 90-degree angle, with your palm facing forward.
  • Left turn: Fully extend your left arm and hand out of the window. 
  • Slow/Stop: Extend your left arm out of the window and point it down by bending your elbow at a 90-degree angle, with your palm facing backward. 
How to Use Hand Signals in Traffic 

Initiate these movements about 100 feet before turning or stopping your vehicle. 

If you plan to turn left or right or change lanes, keep your arm out until you begin the maneuver. But if you intend to stop your vehicle, pull your arm back only after you have come to a complete stop.

Drivers may also wave a hand to thank other road users, or hold two fingers in a “V” position to apologize for making a mistake. 

Other gestures, such as extending your left arm and moving it up and down, can be used to alert others of a potential hazard ahead. 

However, these hand signals are not officially recognized, and it’s up to you whether or not to use them. Generally, it’s safer to keep both hands on the steering wheel—unless you must use your left arm to indicate a turn or stop. 

Proper Hand Signal Techniques Every Driver Should Be Aware of 

According to an earlier study, failing to use turn signals results in two million crashes each year. By comparison, distracted driving causes around one million car accidents annually. 

The same study found that most drivers don’t signal lane changes nearly half of the time. Another study, which was conducted in British Columbia, Canada, reported that only 76% of drivers used turn signals when necessary. 

In some cases, you may not be able to use your car’s turn signals because of a technical issue. Just like other electronic components, these devices can malfunction when you least expect it. But even so, you can and should use hand signals to communicate your actions in traffic. 

With that in mind, let’s see the most important hand signal techniques every driver should master. 

  • Always use turn signals: Some drivers assume it’s not necessary to use turn signals on small or less crowded roads. The problem is that most cars have blind spots, and if you fail to signal, you might collide with another car, bike, or motorcycle you didn’t see in your mirrors. 
  • Make it obvious: Move your arms in a way that ensures maximum visibility. For example, you’ll want to extend your left arm all the way out when making a left turn. 
  • Do it ahead of time: In California, drivers must signal at least 100 feet before performing a maneuver. However, Indiana and other states require motorists to signal their intentions at least 200 feet before turning left or right. So, check the local laws when driving in another state. 
  • Prioritize safety: Remember to hold the steering wheel firmly and always check your mirrors. When making hand signals, you’re only using one arm to control the car, which requires extra attention. 
  • Check for visibility: Make sure the other drivers can see your hand signals. Consider wearing reflective gloves in low-light conditions (e.g., when driving in fog). 
  • Avoid using hand signals at night: If you’re driving at night and your turn signal lights stop working, it’s best to pull over. Turn on the hazard lights and call for help, or wait until morning to resume your trip. 
Proper Hand Signal Techniques Every Driver Should Be Aware of 

In this day and age, hand signals cannot replace electric turn signals. However, they still have their role and can be used as a backup. Plus, there are situations where they can increase your visibility on the road and potentially prevent a crash. 

As a final word, failing to signal is a traffic offense and can result in one point on your license plus a $238 fine. Going to traffic school can mask that point, but you still risk putting yourself and others in danger by not driving responsibly.

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