Signaling: Universal vs Something Different

Like varieties of ice cream, so it is how cyclists alert or signal others when riding.  We all have our favorite flavor but that flavor may not be what everyone else likes.  With signaling, it’s not about what everyone likes or favors, but it should be about what is the BEST and SAFEST for everyone.  Remember, we only have lycra so no matter what we do, it should always be about what creates the safest environment….for everyone…not just for you.

If you have been riding long enough and/or if you have read any amount of information on the internet, Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 3.44.17 PMprobably the most universal accepted stopping signal is putting your hand in the middle of your back, either with hand open or closed.  I’ve never advocated this style for a very valid reason…that you may not have ever thought about.  Imagine you are in a group of 20 or more cyclists and you are about 8-10 back from the front.  Let’s say whoever is at the front decides to use the universal stopping signal with his hand on his back.  Got it?  Now, I have a very important question for you.  Will you be able to ‘see’ that stopping signal from where you are riding?  Of course not!!!  The only cyclists that will be able to physically ‘see’ that signal are those who are directly behind the cyclist at the front.

Let me ask you another thought-provoking question; do you think it is safer to be able to alert just the person directly behind you…or do you think there is more value to getting the attention of as many in the group as possible?  I certainly hope you chose the latter.  It’s just good common sense to choose a method that BEST alerts as many cyclists as possible.  This is even more true as the speed increases, as your time to react gets shorter and shorter.

Here is what is on the League of American Bicyclist (LAB) website on signals:

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 3.52.38 PM

image from LAB’s video on signaling

Left Turn: Fully extend your left arm out to the side
Right Turn: Fully extend your right arm out to the side or bend your left arm up at a right angle with your hand flat. 
Slowing or Stopping: Extend your left arm out at a right angle with your hand open

Hopefully, you are thinking what method do I advocate…and why.  No matter what the scenario is, my goal will ALWAYS be to be able to communicate with as many cyclists as possible….not just the one who is directly behind me.  You have to understand that for every cyclist riding behind you, you have to have a great trust in that they are paying attention all the time.  You can see what cyclists are doing in front of you but not behind.  Therefore, no matter where I am riding (position wise) in a group) I always extend my arm as high as I can stretch, straight up in the air.  At the same time, I also sit up a bit just so my arm can be seen even more from those in the very back.

OK, I’ve described two very different signals for stopping.  You are back in the middle of the peloton again,  I am at the front and approaching a stop sign.  Which stopping signal would you rather me do?  For YOUR safety, I sincerely hope you choose me raising my arm straight up in the air.  If I were in your place, that is what I would choose.

Just like the universal stop signal, there is a universal turning signal.  It consists of you extending your arm to the side in the direction you are turning.  My same perspective and questions apply from above.  Only a select few directly behind the cyclist signaling can physically ‘see’ this and therefore that doesn’t give any ‘heads up’ to the rest of the peloton.  To no surprise, I never advocate this universal style for the exact reasons as the stopping signal.

My choice for turning is motivated to by the same reasons as stopping.  I advocate extending my arm in the direction I am turning but instead of a static arm position, I wave my forearm up and down.  This ‘moving’ gets the attention of everyone behind me.  Isn’t that the whole point of signaling?

Universal Turn Signal

Universal Turn Signal

Regarding the universal turning signal, hopefully the group that you ride with also points out hazards in the road.  If so, this signal can easily be confused with the universal turning signal.  I say this because not everyone extends their arm parallel to the ground when signaling to turn.  This is where confusion can occur.  This is yet another reason why I don’t advocate the universal turning signal.  I want to make darn sure that the information I am trying to convey to everyone behind me is as CLEAR as possible.  I hope you do to.

Perfect example.  I was on a group ride recently where the rider in front clearly extended his arm to his left….but it was not parallel to the ground; it was more at a downward angle, for sure.  Probably like you, I immediately thought they were signaling for some hazard in the road.  Nope.  All the sudden they turned left and caught me and everyone else off guard.  Crashes were avoided…barely.  Had they chose to use how I signal when turning, I can guarantee you there would have been NO doubt what the intentions were.  Oh, I hope you picked up that in this example, they only used their arms to signal.  They were missing something; that’s next…

Signalling is great but signaling alone has one MAJOR flaw; it relies on those behind you, who you are signaling to, to physically see it.  But wait, what if that cyclist directly behind you just looked down to grab their bottle at the same time you did the universal stopping signal?   Or, what if that cyclist behind you just looked down at their bike computer to see what their heartbeat was or how fast they are going?  If that cyclist has electronic shifting, what if they glanced down to see what gear they were riding in?  You ‘see’ my point?  Pun intended, by the way…

For this very reason, not only do I use my arms to signal, but I also use my mouth.  Listen, I have NO idea what you are doing at any given moment behind me; I have enough to focus on to keep my attention.  But, I’m going to make darn sure that I get your attention, no matter what you are doing OR where you are looking.  When I use my arms AND my mouth, this guarantees that I cover both scenarios…and that I WILL get your attention.  More importantly, I get the attention of countless others who are riding behind you.

If you are riding behind me, I hope you appreciate my thought process in not only ‘how’ I signal but also ‘why’ I signal the way I do.  Bottom line, it makes for a much safer environment for you and me.

Yes, there are many other signals I could highlight but for the sake of length, I chose the two most common.  My hope is to bring a spotlight to signaling, its importance and how best you can get the attention to those behind you…for all the right and safer reasons.

Do you have a cycling question or topic suggestion that you would addressed?  Send an email to and then watch for my post.

Coach Robert…


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