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In this installment of our Bike Safety Series we look the law pertaining to bike signals and how to use hand signals.

Following the death of a Champaign cyclist last week, I felt it was important to continue our discussion on bike safety. Building a safe community and safe transportation systems involves the participation of individual drivers and cyclists as well as governmental and community organizations. While you can never be in complete control over your surroundings, biking thoughtfully and vigilantly is the best method to ensuring that you don’t end up involved in an accident. A big part of this is following the rules of the road, and using proper hand signals is one part of that.

I’ve known a lot of cyclists, even fairly safety-minded ones that recognize the importance of helmets, who feel that signaling is a chore and not that important. These may even be people who as drivers wouldn’t think of not signaling. I do get it to some extent. It’s more work to signal on a bike than it is with a car. You don’t just have to turn a lever, you have to take a hand off the handlebar and hold it out in the air. This can be precarious if conditions are rainy or icy or if you’re riding on uneven surfaces like cobblestones.

As I see it, though, signaling is integral to basic bike safety. Biking involves the use of public roads and interacting with other cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians. The more of these people can know and anticipate the movements of those around them, the less likely they will be to accidentally make contact with them. In basic terms, if everyone knows what everyone else is doing next, they can prepare for it. Signaling is one of the best ways to ensure that people around you know what you’re doing.

The Law

Bicyclists in Illinois are required by law to signal a turn right or left. According to Illinois Vehicle Code Sec. 11-1511:

A signal of intention to turn right or left when required shall be given during not less than the last 100 feet traveled by the bicycle before turning, and shall be given while the bicycle is stopped waiting to turn.

This is essentially the same as the law that applies to cars. You need to signal before turning and while waiting to turn. It also means that once you’ve started your turn, there’s no need for any signaling. But what about if you need to use both hands to brake? The law covers that:

A signal by hand and arm need not be given continuously if the hand is needed in the control or operation of the bicycle.

This means that if you need to use both hands to apply your breaks before stopping or turning, you can do so if you signal before and after per the rules above.

So what are the potential punishments? I called the Champaign Police Department and while they said that failure to signal on bikes is not something they typically issue tickets for, you could be subject to a $120 fine.

The Signals


Hand signal for turning left, hand signal for stopping

Signaling a left turn is simple and intuitive. You just extend your left arm out, parallel to the ground. The stop signal is perhaps slightly less obvious, but no more complicated. You extend your left hand downwards, bending the elbow. Remember, as a cyclist you don’t have brake lights to let those around you know you’re slowing down.


Traditional signal for turning right, alternative signal for turning right

With respect to signaling a right turn, things are a little more complicated. Historically, the only legal way to signal a right turn was you extend your left arm, bending your elbow so that your forearm and hand are perpendicular to the ground. That’s a little odd, right? Using your left hand to signal a right turn. It’s often commented that this is a confusing and unintuitive way of signaling one’s intention to turn right, making it an unsuitable way of helping others anticipate your next move. If it’s so weird and unintuitive, then why do we use it? The answer is that it’s a historic artifact of signaling turns in cars. Cars didn’t always have convenient lights on the back that signal turns, so when drivers wanted to let others know they were turning, they had to use their hands. Because in the US we drive on the left side of the road and the driver is on the left side of the car, any signal using the right arm would not be easily visible to other drivers, so they had to find a way of using the left hand to signal for both left and right turns.

Since that’s not an issue with a bike, there’s no real need to continue the practice if there’s a better option. Luckily for us, there’s a clear and obvious alternative to traditional right turn signal:
For a right turn, just stick your right arm out as you would your left arm when signaling a left turn.

That’s it. There’s no need to use your left arm and potentially confuse those around you. There’s no need to even bend your elbow. In 2008, Illinois law changed, allowing for both methods of signaling a left turn, so this method is just as acceptable with respect to the law.


Let us know if there are any bike safety issues not included in our series that you think are deserving of a post! We’re always happy to help make Champaing-Urbana a safer community by using our voice.

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