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  • April 01, 2021 5 min read

    To indicate, or not to indicate? That is the question

    Often asked, so these are my thoughts.

    The first question is why do we signal?

    This seems to fit firmly into the information phase ‘I’ of the system (IPSGA).Take, use and give information are the three parts of the information phase with ‘give’ relevant in this subject. Immediately we think about indicator use but there are other means of signalling such as position, speed, hand signals, horn and headlight flasher.

    Being in the correct position for a hazard provides others with an idea of where we want to go. The importance of ‘closing the door’ at junctions when turning left to prevent others passing up our inside is important, so positioning correctly provides a signal of our intention. 

    Hand signals

    These are rarely given nowadays but can be of use in bright sunshine where our indicators are obscured. To be effective, snapping the arm out sharply draws attention to the signal. Do not remove your hands from the bars if so doing would place you in a worse position of safety. Extending an arm to full length to right or left can lead to instability so the short arm signal may be more appropriate and try to give them when travelling in a straight line. At higher speeds the use of hand signals is not appropriate. Some older bikes may not be fitted with indicators and hand signals will be required more but this takes practice. How did we manage before indicators?

    As with all signals, to be of any use they must be clearly given and at the right time. There is absolutely no point in giving a signal if it is misleading. We have all experienced the situation on a roundabout where the car driver indicating left continues on past a turn off. Clearly this is misleading and dangerous.

    I was always advised that an indicator needs to flash at least three times to be of any real use. The first flash is probably not seen by another motorist, the second, perhaps recognised as such and by the time the third flash occurs the motorist will hopefully have seen and understood the intention.

    As an advanced rider we need to make intelligent use of the indicators and not use them by rote. And as usual, ‘it depends’ creeps in. When pedestrians or motorists are in close proximity at a junction or likely to be so, it is beneficial to give a signal.

    Overtaking may or may not demand a signal before pulling out. In this situation ‘it depends’ on vehicles following, vehicles to be overtaken or anyone else who might benefit. Often we attain the overtaking position quite quickly and there may be little benefit indicating before pulling out. Remember the three flash recommendation above. In many situations we could have completed the overtake in the time it takes for us to wait for the driver in front to recognise the three flashes.


    There can be a real benefit in using an indicator signal on joining a motorway. Hopefully we have matched our joining speed to vehicles on the carriageway but it is always an awkward angle to see behind as we make the final movement. Additionally changing lanes can benefit from an indicator signal too. One of the worst situations to find ourselves in is when we wish to move from lane 1 to lane 2 at the same time as a vehicle in lane 3 decides to move to lane 2. So an indictor signal could be beneficial here. Should we use an indicator signal every time we change lanes? My view is no. Ask yourself the question is there a benefit or are you doing it out of habit or rote? 

    Misleading signals

    We need to be careful about giving misleading signals. One scenario is when there are two left turns in close proximity and the desired course is the second turn. Perhaps better to give a signal late for the second turn rather than indicating before the first. 


    Often forgotten but will give you a bonus point on the test if given correctly. Remember it should only be used as a warning, not as a rebuke. In narrow country lanes with blind bends we can often benefit by using a 2 second blast. If used directly at a motorist who may not be aware of your presence, think about the effect it has on him or her. Often the sound of a horn creates a feeling of anger when none was intended. If safe, a quick wave after recognition can assuage any negative effect.

    Headlight flash

    This has the same meaning as use of the horn. To be effective it needs to be seen for several seconds. Usage can sometimes be appropriate just prior to overtaking to give advance warning to the car in front that you intend to pass. Often seen but not recommended is use of a headlight flash to let someone out. Do not flash your lights for this purpose or you may get drawn into an insurance accident report if it goes wrong.

    Signals on an Observed , Associates’ or Members’ ride

    It’s good to know what is meant by giving a signal which doesn’t appear in the Highway Code, so it is good to discuss and be aware beforehand. These are the signals in common use:

    Thumbs up (actually just one thumb): from Observer and Associate indicates you are ready to go.

    Thumbs down (one thumb): You have a problem and need to stop when safe.

    Pointing at your petrol tank: In need of fuel, or need to pull over for some other reason.

    Waving right arm at a low angle backward and forward: Pass me if safe and take the lead.

    An Observer touching his rear seat with a hand: Follow me.

    Pointing in the direction intended when stationary using right or left hand (do not sweep arm over your head which can be confusing): Useful on Associate and Members’ rides to show the direction to be taken. Be careful leaving the arm fully extended when the road is narrow or others are in close proximity. Bring it in if it is likely to confuse a motorist.

    Rotating hand in a low down position: Turn around when safe.

    Use signals intelligently and not by rote or habit. Think of who would benefit or potentially benefit and you won’t go far wrong.


    Paul Watson Cartoon sourced from Bike Magazine, May 1977


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