We Teach Driving Like Your Life Depends On It

Reviving the lost art of hand signals

July 22, 2011

By Steve Wallace, Times Colonist, July 22, 2011

Cyclists signal while crossing the Johnson Street Bridge. Hand signals are useful for all users of the road, including drivers and pedestrians, by increasing fellow users’ knowledge of your intentions.

Hand signals are very useful in the traffic system.

The first internal combustion machines did not come equipped with headlights, let alone automatic turn signals. A raised arm was the only method used to indicate a driver’s path of travel. Turn signals were not used extensively until sometime between the First and Second World Wars, depending on the geographical jurisdiction. In fact, an anecdotal account of the first car crash between the only two vehicles in the state of Ohio was proof that some signalling action was necessary.

Some vehicles, such as early VWs, had a mechanical turn indicator that flipped out on the appropriate side of the car prior to the intended turn.

Most professional drivers will use hand signals to get better recognition from the other drivers around them. I know of one taxi driver who, when leaving the curb, opens his driver window and extends half his upper body out the driver’s side with a hand extended in a similar fashion as policeman stopping traffic. It works and allows him to get back into the adjacent lane. He says it is effective because it personalizes the driving task. It surprises some drivers and cyclists and makes them aware of the taxi driver’s predicament. It also lets people know, in a very emphatic manner, that a parking spot is about to become available. The left arm is used for a proper hand signal. Straight out is a left-turn warning, out and up is a right turn and down is a signal warning that a driver intends to slow down or stop.

When cyclists use hand signals, it is acceptable in some cities, provinces and states to use the right arm extended fully to indicate a right turn. This actually makes good sense when you think about it. The only reason car drivers use the left arm is because of clear inline visibility from car to car. When cyclists use either the right or left arm extended, there is no doubt about their intention. They are in effect pointing in the direction they wish to go.

Pedestrians should use hand signals too. There is no law that makes it mandatory, but it is a good idea nonetheless. By extending an arm in the direction they wish to walk, pedestrians take the guesswork out of every scenario available to them. Drivers pay more attention to people who appear to be waving a hand in their direction of intended travel. This personalizes the action about to be taken. Extending an arm and getting eye contact with an approaching driver is a very effective way to communicate from the sidewalk. Each year across Canada, about 400 pedestrians are killed when hit by vehicles.

Last week, I was preparing to stop for a pedestrian who wished to cross the road at a legally designated and well-marked crosswalk in broad daylight. The crosswalk was painted in an intermittent fashion, commonly referred to as a “zebra” crossing, where stopping is not mandatory unless the crosswalk is occupied. Overhead signs clearly indicated the presence of a crosswalk. Advance crosswalk signs were also present. Despite all these warnings, and the fact that I was slowing to accommodate a pedestrian who wished to cross the street, the driver behind me pulled to the left lane in an effort to pass at the intersection. As luck would have it, my window was down, and I managed to get my arm out the window and wave frantically at the passing driver on my left. The pedestrian had already begun to cross the road and would have been hit by the passing driver had it not been for my hand signal. He skidded to a stop. A tragedy was avoided. Used effectively, hand signals save lives.

Steve Wallace is a member of the College of Teachers and the owner of Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island and the Interior of B.C.
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