Spreading the word: turn signals for Florida cyclists
It’s probably fair to say that just about everyone on the road in Florida will complain that drivers just don’t use their turn signals. That's certainly the truth to anyone who's been on the roads of South Florida. There’s no reason that bicyclists should also be grouped in with that generalization. More so because it’s vitally important that drivers be aware if cyclists are changing lanes or turning, giving those drivers time to slow and give space.
Yet like we’ve seen drivers changing lanes and turning without using their turn signal, we’ve also seen many bicyclists do the same, or only signal their intent just as they begin their turn. That’s a lot of misplaced trust to put in a motorist driving a 2-ton vehicle traveling 40 mph only a few feet behind you.
But while there are some lights and turn signals on the market that can be attached to a bike or bicyclist, bicycles typically don’t come with installed turn signals. So what does Florida law say for bicyclists regarding turn signals?
As we already know, Florida law makes a distinction between vehicles from motor vehicles and specifies which apply to motor vehicles and which apply to all vehicles, including bicycles. Florida’s law regarding turn signals states that anyone turning “a vehicle from a direct course or move right or left” must do two things first:
Make sure the turn can be done with reasonable safety; and
Give an appropriate signal provided by law.
There’s a caveat within the law, though, that these two only need to be done if traffic will be affected by the change of course or turn.
It goes without saying that any bicyclist, or driver for that matter, needs to be aware of their surroundings and the road ahead. If you see an obstacle up ahead or know your turn is coming up, safely look behind as soon as you can to determine what you’re dealing with and how you’ll handle your next move. You want to do this as soon as you can to give yourself and any traffic behind you (including other bicyclists) enough time to be aware of your intentions and respond safely. Waiting until the last moment could result in an oncoming car blocking your lane change and forcing you into the oncoming obstacle or having to stop abruptly or missing your turn.
If you see you can make the turn or lane change with reasonable safety, start letting the traffic behind you know of your intention. So to the second part of the law, how are bicyclists supposed to signal? Now if you’re driving a car, according to the law, you are required to signal continuously at least 100 yards before the turn. Cyclists, though, aren’t required to signal that long if they need to return their hand to handle the bicycle.
Florida Statute section 316.157 states that when making a left turn, the cyclist (and motorist) must extend their left hand and arm out horizontally.
It's important to remember that these hand signals were drafted long ago with motorists also in mind when seeing how the law addresses right hand turn signals. The law first states that the left hand and arm should be extended upward when signaling a right-hand turn. That’s probably the way many people remember being taught, including me way back when I was in the Boy Scouts.
These days, as most motorists don’t even know the old hand signals, the law gives us bicyclists an option that throws away the cognitive dissonance and makes it clear that we’re turning right by allowing us to extend our right arm and hand horizontally to signal our intention.
The law also states that slowing or stopping is indicated by extending your left arm and hand downward. Our group riders also know that showing their right palm and closed hand also indicates slowing and stopping.
No matter the vehicle, it only makes common sense to let traffic behind you know if you'll be turning or merging into another lane. We bicyclists know that we're even more vulnerable not being surrounded by a 2-ton metal cage. So even though we have the same rights and obligations as others on the road, we need to still ride smart and defensively, but also with confidence.