A Simple Guide to Hand Signals for Driving in 2023

Your car, truck, van, or SUV comes equipped with an array of exterior lights. Headlights to aid in nighttime navigation. Fog lamps to help you see through the mist. Lamps to light up your license plate. Your vehicle even features a set of lights – the running lights, side marker lamps, and daytime running lights – to simply show other drivers where you are. Other lights are in place to signal drivers as to your intentions on the road.

Unfortunately, there may come a time when a light on your vehicle malfunctions.

But did you know that if your brake lights fail or your turn signals stop working, there is a set of hand signals that you can use instead?

Why use hand signals?

Let’s say that a tail light bulb burns out. Well, if it is only one bad bulb, other drivers might still be able to see the brake light on the other side, or the center-mount brake lamp placed higher up for better visibility. But if a fuse blows, or the brake light switch breaks, the lights will not come on at all when you step on the brake pedal. Drivers behind you will have no idea when you are slowing down or stopping.

But the truth is, even a single burned out bulb can cause a problem. A faulty turn signal, whether due to a bad bulb or a broken turn signal switch, can lead to a crash if other drivers do not know that you are about to change lanes or make a turn at an intersection.

Driving a vehicle with inoperative lights can be dangerous.

Fortunately, there is a nearly universal set of hand signals designed to communicate your intentions to other drivers when your lights are not working properly. Supported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Department of Transportation (DOT), and most state legislatures, these signals are the same as those used by bicyclists and motorcycle riders. And they are taught to motorists during driver’s education classes.

Here are the three common hand signals used by drivers and riders almost everywhere.

Left turn hand signal

driving hand signals

For those times when your left turn signal fails to work, there is a hand signal to tell other drivers that you wish to turn left. Maybe you have used this signal when riding a bicycle. Or maybe you have seen someone on a motorcycle use this signal and wondered what it meant. In all cases, the signal is the same.

Before you make a left-hand turn or move to change lanes from right to left, lower your window and extend your left arm straight out to the side. Keep your fingers extended and your arm parallel to the ground. You want your stick-straight arm to be clearly visible, especially to drivers behind your vehicle.

Now, once the way is clear and you have signaled for a few seconds – and other drivers have had a chance to understand your intentions – make your left turn or lane change.

Right turn hand signal

driving hand signals

Driver’s hand signals are meant to be performed by the driver. An indication that you are about to turn right is not someone sticking their arm out in the opposite direction. Rather, it is done in a similar fashion to the left turn. Only in this case, your left arm does not remain straight.

To signal a right turn or lane change, open your window and stick out your arm. But this time, bend at the elbow with your hand sticking up toward the sky and your hand pointing forward. Your arm should be bent ninety degrees.

Again, make sure your arm is clearly visible from behind.


Stop/slow down hand signal

driving hand signals

Let’s say that your brake lights are the problem rather than your turn signals. How in the world is the driver directly behind you going to know when you are slowing down or coming to a stop?

Well, there is a signal for that, too. It is the same whether you intend to slow down or come to a complete stop.

Make sure to allow ample time for other drivers to see your signal. Put your left arm out of the window and then bend it downward at the elbow with the palm of your hand facing behind you. It is as if you rotated the right-hand signal down to the ground, with your arm bent ninety degrees down instead of up. You want to make sure that your hand is aiming down, not to the left, so that your signal is not easily confused with a left-hand turn.

Hand Signal Tips

If you find that you need to rely on hand signals at some point, it might help to understand a few principles to help you and other people on the road to remain safe. Consider these tips when using driving hand signals.

  • Signal in advance. It is important to signal well before you make a move to turn or stop. If the laws in your state require a hundred-foot advance notice with a turn signal before making a turn, give it two hundred feet. Let drivers know of your intentions well in advance.
  • Make it obvious. Another important tip is to use obvious movements with your arm. Be deliberate. Casually sticking your arm out of the window is more like mumbling when you talk. Speak clearly with your left hand if you want other drivers to know what you want to do.
  • Do it during the day. Finally, know that your hand signals are far less effective at night when visibility is already compromised. If your signal lights are not working, it is best to avoid driving your vehicle in the dark until you can schedule a repair.

Understanding these three driving hand signals is essential not only for those times when one of your lights go out, but also to identify the intentions of any other drivers, cyclists, and motorcyclists on the road. These hand signals allow everyone on the road to speak with a common language – one that is meant to keep everyone safe.


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