Motorcycle Hand Signals: A Quick History

Find out what motorcycle hand signals are all about and how a Hollywood starlet plays into the story.

As a driver, you’ve no doubt shared the road with motorcycles. And you’ve probably seen them signal something to you or someone else. Aside from the most obvious (and insulting) ones, do you know what the heck all those motorcycle hand signals mean?

To get to the bottom of hand-signal history, we have to go all the way back to the early twentieth century, a time when cars came loaded with style but lacking safety features … you know, things like seat belts and turn signals.

A 10-second history of turn signals

It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when people didn’t get mad at other drivers for not using their blinkers. It wasn’t that we had more Zen back then, but just that we had fewer blinkers. In fact, before 1938, when they made their debut on a brand-new Buick, we didn’t have blinkers at all.

Blinkers, or turn signals, were invented by silent film star (and car enthusiast) Florence Lawrence in 1914. They didn’t become standard on passenger cars until the 1950s, however, and they weren’t standard on motorcycles until 1973. So how did everyone get around without smacking into each other? Well, rather intuitively, they simply used their hands to let other drivers know which way they were headed.

While these hand signals have gone the way of the dodo for most drivers, many motorcycle riders still use them as a way of communicating with cars and other bikes on the road.

Why motorcycle hand signals work

Although most modern motorcycles come equipped with standard safety gear like turn signals and hazards, basic hand signals allow motorcyclists to become their own sort of safety device by clearly communicating with drivers and other bikers.

Think about it: while motorcycles are less visible than cars, motorcycle riders themselves are actually much easier to see than their “caged” counterparts behind the wheel. By using hand signals, riders can let vehicles around them know their intentions and can warn other riders about potential hazards ahead.

Top 9 motorcycle hand signals

Riders use a variety of signals to indicate everything from “slow down” to “watch out, hazard ahead.” Check out the infograph below to see the top 9 motorcycle hand signals.

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Motorcycle resources

Esurance is excited to now offer great coverage for our motorcycle-riding friends in California, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin (with more states to follow). Of course, if you live in 1 of the other 45 states, you can still protect your bike with our trusted partner company. Just check out our motorcycle page to get a quote for your bike (or ATV, scooter, Vespa, or Segway) and find lots of useful info, like our motorcycle FAQ.

Related links

5 things you may not know about motorcycle insurance
The coolest innovations in motorcycle safety
How to store your bike for winter
Top 5 reasons to ride a motorcycle
Tips for navigating your motorcycle in bad weather

2 Responses to “Motorcycle Hand Signals: A Quick History”

  1. Vince Liggett
    January 22, 2014 #

    I recall having to learn hand signals,for my driving test in England in the 1950's. Not only for motorcycles but also for horse riders and drivers of horse carts. Even bicyclists were required to give hand signals. Cars previous to the blinker generation had "trafficators" – a small illuminated arm that flipped out of the side of the vehicle..

  2. Jon
    August 21, 2014 #

    Also tap the top of your helmet to warn about cops.

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