Rules of the Road

Which hand are you supposed to use when signaling a right turn while riding a bike?

Question: What is the correct hand signal for a right turn when riding a bike? Do you extend your left hand up or your right hand out?

Answer: Yes. At least according to the law.

But before we get to that, let’s agree that signaling, no matter how you do it, whether you’re on a bike or in a car, is one of the bare minimum behaviors that we commit to practice when we’re on the road. If you’re not signaling, you’ve not only violated the written law; you’ve also violated the unwritten rules that define how other drivers will feel about you as a fellow human.

Signals help other drivers understand our intentions, making driving more predictable and safe. Not making the effort to push on that little lever on your steering column or extend an arm is essentially like telling everyone else on the road that you think you’re too special to play by the rules.

Okay, enough preaching. Back to the question.

As a kid I was taught, and maybe you were too, that to signal a right turn while riding my bike I was supposed to extend my left arm out from my body and bend it at the elbow so my hand was pointing straight up. That is a legally acceptable way of signaling a right turn, but it’s not the only one.

According to the a section of the Revised Code of Washington titled “hand signals,” a cyclist can signal a right turn by either by extending the left hand up or extending the right hand out. Both are equally acceptable by law (if you’re riding a bike).

If you were convinced that the right hand method wasn’t allowed by law, I can understand.

There is another law, under the confusingly similar title “method of giving arm and hand signals” that states that all required hand and arm signals shall be given from the left side of the vehicle, using the left arm.

Given that a bicycle is a kind of vehicle, you could conclude that this law pertained to cyclists as well as drivers, especially if you had no reason to know that there was the law we previously discussed later in the chapter.

It’s only after reading a few preceding laws that it becomes clear that this section is specifically for vehicles.

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AMANDA McCOY/SUN HERALD Justin Ford demonstrates how to signal a right turn while riding his bicycle on U.S. 40 on Friday, May 18 2012. May is National Bicycle Month. Amanda McCoy McClatchy

One of those laws provides for a quirky tangent. The law requires that your vehicle, unless it was built before 1953, be equipped with turn signals, but that doesn’t mean you have to use them.

I’m not contradicting my opening rant; you still have to signal, but you have the option of using hand signals if you’d like.

To quote the law, turn signals, when required, “shall be given either by means of the hand and arm or by signal lamps.”

I’m not advocating for a return to hand signals when driving, but they are a legal back-up plan if your turn signals aren’t working.

I’ll bet right now you’re asking yourself, “Isn’t there some kind of limit to when hand signals are allowed?”

I’m so glad you asked. Hand signals are only allowed if the distance between the center of the steering wheel and the outside of the vehicle doesn’t exceed two feet, and the distance from the steering wheel to the back of the vehicle is less than 14 feet.

Presumably, that’s because at greater distances the drivers behind you wouldn’t be able to see your hand signal. There’s a piece of traffic law trivia for your next social event.

Obviously, extending your right hand out to indicate a right turn while driving a car would be pretty useless.

But on a bike, both arms are equally visible to a driver, and the law reflects the differences.

In case you’re wondering (you probably weren’t), I use my right hand to signal a right turn when I’m on my bike. I’m a simple guy; pointing where I’m going makes sense to me and hopefully it’s hard for anyone to misinterpret. If you prefer to use your left hand up to signal a right turn, that’s okay too. There’s room in the law for both of us.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.
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