Your Turn Signals


“The turn signal is a vital safety feature that is not only required to be built in as standard equipment on all vehicles, but their use by the driver in everyday driving is required by law.” - Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE)

 “…57% of American drivers admit they don’t use their turn signals when changing lanes…” – National Driving Habits Survey, Response Insurance

A driver convicted of “a failure to use or improper use of signal” has a 96% increased likelihood of a crash. – ATRI’s “Predicting Truck Crash Involvement”

“During CY2011, 13% of all Motorist Observation Reports indicated a failure to use signals” – SafetyFirst


I wouldn’t attempt to drive a vehicle with a blindfold over my eyes.  Similarly, I wouldn’t drive on a highway were every other driver’s eyes had been covered.  Sounds silly, right?  

While failing to use turn signals isn’t as bad as placing blindfolds on the other drivers around you, it’s making things a lot more risky by blinding them to your maneuvers.

Many drivers fail to use their directional “turn” signals consistently, and that contributes to a lot of confusion, surprises and panic moves.  In most states regulations and traffic law requires the use of signals, and basic courtesy (i.e. ‘Rules of the road’) suggests that signals ought to be used consistently.

The consequences of failing to signal, or signaling late, can include any of the following:

a “near miss” (a collision that didn’t quite happen)

a “safety complaint report”

a ticket with fines and increased insurance costs.  

The worst outcome would be suffering injuries or never making it home because of a crash.

Think about it – if you were going to operate a potentially dangerous machine like a chain saw, a blowtorch, or a welding rig, you’d likely warn other people who might be nearby before you get started so that they can move a safe distance away – so that they don’t get hurt.  Using your signals gives fair warning that you’re going to move your vehicle into their lane, or turn at the next corner.  

Even if the other drivers ignore your signals, you should provide the warning.

CDL drivers should also be aware that CDL standards define “serious moving traffic violations” to include erratic lane changes and improper passing.  While simply failing to use signals properly isn’t the basis of the violation, such a failure would likely compound the situation or make the offense more noticeable to a police officer.

Before You Leave

Test your signals as part of your pre-trip inspection.  Make sure they are clean and work properly so that other motorists will see them.  If they are dirty, clean them.  If damaged, get them fixed.

Times to Signal

Most every state driver’s manual covers the use of turn signals.  There are several situations where the use of your turn signals can alert drivers to “back off” or slow down to give you maneuvering room:

Turing at intersections

Turning into driveways or parking lots

Changing lanes to pass other traffic

Merging at an on-ramp

Exiting a highway at an off-ramp

Exiting a roundabout

When pulling into a traffic lane from a parking area (or the breakdown lane/shoulder)

How do you Signal?

Most drivers know how to activate their turn signals.  Some don’t use them because they are distracted or because they may be lazy and don’t want to be bothered.  Others may use them incorrectly.

When using your signals to alert other motorists, you should:

Signal early (before starting/making a maneuver).  This sends a signal that you’re about to change lanes or turn so that other drivers can slow down and allow more following space.  

If you signal late (i.e. as you’re making your move), you’re not giving enough notice to make a difference – the other drivers may run into you before they realize what you’re actually doing.  

Give yourself a few seconds (a couple cycles of the signal) before making a move.

Allow the signal to run through multiple cycles.  One blink of your signal isn’t enough to catch someone’s attention.  I’ve ridden with many drivers who use their signal for a short moment.  These drivers make a common mistake, believing that one or two flashes are enough of an alert.  Instead, allow the signal to cycle five or six times to be sure that others spot the signal.  

Judge your timing carefully in congested streets or where there may be confusion. If there are multiple streets, driveways, or entrances between you and where you want to turn, wait until you have passed them to signal. Otherwise, you may confuse another driver about your true intent.  

Similarly, if another vehicle is about to enter the street between you and where you plan to turn, wait until you have passed it to signal your turn. If you signal earlier, the other driver may think you plan to turn where they are and they might pull into your path.

Make sure your turn signal is off after you have made a turn or lane change. After small turns, the signals may not turn off by themselves. Turn it off if it has not clicked off by itself. If you don’t, other drivers might think you plan to turn again.

What About Judging Other Drivers’ Use of Signals?

Be careful – most drivers don’t use their signals consistently.  If someone has their signal on, it may mean that they forgot to turn it off, or that they really intend to turn at your intersection.  If drivers were universally consistent, you could trust their signaling efforts to be clear.  Unfortunately, you can’t afford to pull out in front of a vehicle that is assumed to be turning into your driveway, etc.  

Does this mean we should all give up on using our signals?  Not at all!  It’s still the law that we should use our signals correctly, and we should set a positive example for our “neighbors on the roads”.

Do I Still Need to Signal When No Other Drivers are Present?

Signalling is a habit and it should be reinforced whenever you drive.  If you’re alone on the highway, signalling is still complying with the law – even if no one else sees you do it.  

Getting into the habit of driving safely may help you start using signals “automatically” so that you don’t have to remember to use them consistently.

In Addition to Signaling

Sometimes using your signals isn’t enough to assure a safe maneuver.  When merging or changing lanes, you may want to also check your mirrors and look over your shoulder to make sure that the other lane is clear.  Most vehicles have areas that are not easily seen through your mirrors.  This area is often called a “blind spot”.  In addition to making it harder for you to see other vehicles in this “blind spot”, the other vehicles may not notice your signals, either.  

It’s your responsibility to make sure it’s safe to move before changing lanes, turning or merging.


Using turn signals consistently is the courteous act and it alerts others that you intend to change lanes or turn out of your lane at an intersection, roundabout or driveway.  Signaling early enough for others to spot and recognize your intention takes a couple cycles of the signal so allow a few seconds before you make your move.  If you are approaching a series of closely spaced cross streets or driveways, scan for drivers who might mistake your signal and pull out in front of you and time your use of signals to minimize confusion.  After using your signals, check to be sure they’re turned off – allowing them to blink for long periods after making your move may confuse other motorists.