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Driving Hand Signals: Everything You Need To Know

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Woman behind a steering wheel

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Driving hand signals might not be that common, but they can be important for your safety, and the safety of everyone else on the road. Motorcyclists often use hand signals in addition to the lights on their vehicles, but you can use them as a car or truck driver, too. 

Hand signals can even be incredibly useful when your signal lights are out, but you need to drive to get a repair, or in other emergencies. 

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about hand signals, including which hand signals are most important, when you should use them, and when it’s not safe to use them. 

Let’s get started!

What Are Driving Hand Signals? 

Before we get into the details, it’s important to make sure you know what we’re talking about. 

Driver hand signals are signs you can make with your hand and forearm out the side. You’ll need to push your hand through the window of the driver’s side to make them. Proper hand signals can only be made by the driver, though some people do ask passengers to signal out the other side in some situations. 

As a note, you can signal everything you need by yourself. You don’t need a passenger to help, but they can make some of the lesser-known signals a little more obvious. 


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Are Driver Hand Signals As Good As Using Your Signal Lights? 

No, driver hand signals should not be used instead of your signal lights. Signal lights are legally required, tend to be a lot more effective, and are widely understood by everyone on the road. 

A good percentage of drivers understand driver hand signals, but not all of them do. They’re most common for motorcyclists and cyclists on the road, so other drivers might not even notice a hand signal from a car or truck in front of them. 

If your signal lights are working, you should use them. 

You can use driver hand signals in addition to your signal lights, but you don’t need to, and it can confuse other drivers. 

What Driver Hands Signals Should You Know? 

We’re going to focus on the most basic and most important hand signals in this article. There are other driver hand signals, but chances are you won’t need them, and other drivers won’t know them if you do need them. 

There are three basic hand signals you need to know, and they’re the only ones you’re likely to see on the road. 

The three-hand signals are: 

  1. I’m Stopping
  2. I want to turn Left
  3. I want to turn Right

For practical reasons, turning signals are also used for lane changes, just like signal lights. 

All three signals are done with your left hand out the window. 

Driver Hand Signal: I’m Stopping

This hand signal is usually the most important and can be used to help signal other drivers if your brake lights go out suddenly. 

Since brake lights are a critical safety feature on your car, you shouldn’t drive without them very much. But using a stopping hand signal is better than nothing. 

The stopping signal is sticking your left hand out of the car window and pointing it down toward the pavement. There are two variations on this signal – in one you’ll open your left hand so that the palm of your hand is facing the driver behind you. In the other, hold the same position, but make a fist instead of opening your hand. 

Both versions are equally valid, and usually equally well understood. 

Try to use this hand signal earlier than you would start braking and hold it the whole time you’re braking if you’re able to. This is important because you need to give the driver more time to notice the signal. 

Even the most clearly communicated hand signal is more subtle on the road than your signal lights, so it’s important to help other drivers have the best possible opportunity to see and respond to your signal. 


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Driver Hand Signal: I Want To Turn Left

This driver signal should be used the whole time you’re turning or changing lanes, or for as long as possible considering the position of other drivers and vehicles in traffic. 

Stick your left arm out the window and point to the left. Normal pointing hand position is fine, but some drivers do turn their hand to the side and point with all four fingers, folding their thumb in over their palm. 

The variation is good for situations where a single finger point might be harder for the driver behind you to see, like in foggy or dark driving conditions. Both versions are legal, and both are reasonably well understood. 

Be sure to point your hand out as far from the vehicle as possible so it’s less likely for the driver behind you to mistake your signal for just holding your hand out of the vehicle or windsurfing. 

Driver Hand Signal: I Want To Turn Right

The driver’s hand signal for I want to turn right is the one that’s most commonly misunderstood. This is the one where sometimes drivers will have the passenger signal, though that’s not official and won’t replace your turn signal for legal purposes. 

For this signal, stick your left hand out the window just like any other hand signal. Bend your elbow so that your hand is pointed up. Open your hand so that the palm is facing forward. 

There is a variation, but it’s not as well understood or accepted as the other signals. The variation is turning your hand toward the vehicle, so your palm is facing the top of your car, then bending your fingers so they’re parallel to the top of the vehicle. 

This version isn’t as well accepted because it’s harder to read, but if you see it on the road, now you’ll know what it means. 


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When Driver Hand Signals Aren’t A Good Idea

Driver hand signals can be useful and are a good way to help keep yourself safer on the road when you’re driving without other signals, for whatever reason, but they aren’t always safe. 

For instance, if you’re driving in crowded traffic on an icy road, putting your arm out the window to signal might be risky. 

You should still signal in any situation you feel comfortable doing so, but don’t risk injury to your arm if you’re driving in a situation where hand signals aren’t safe. It’s better to stay in your lane or to merge or stop more slowly so the drivers around you have a chance to see and respond to what you’re doing. 

You also shouldn’t use a hand signal at the same time as your signal lights. Using both can confuse the people you’re signaling, or even distract the driver behind you with your hand so that they don’t see your lights. 

Remember: hand signals aren’t a perfect replacement for your signal lights. They’re better than nothing but not as good as signaling normally.

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