Motorcyclist hand gestures: The need to know.

Here’s an interesting question raised by a friend of a friend and I believe there are more people with a curiosity regarding motorcyclist hand signals and what they mean. And I am not referring to being flipped the bird.


Now all joking aside. Motorcyclists have developed various hand gestures and signals over time in order to communicate with one another when on the road. This comes in handy as talking to each other is nearly impossible with the helmet on and wind rushing past. There are however bluetooth units that allow for communication, but these are sometimes very expensive, so most bikers still opt for using hand gestures to get their message across.

Common greetings and well wishes

I believe everyone has seen a biker giving the peace sign to another rider at least once. The peace sign is simply a greeting and wishing the other rider a safe journey. The way in which a rider gives the signal differs from region to region, but is easily recognised. In most instances it is presented at shoulder hight pointing up, or presented approximately at waist hight pointing downward.

A more common greeting and well wish in South Africa is one rider tilting his helmet to another similar to what one would do with and old style hat. This is commonly referred to as the nod. Similar to the peace symbol it is a greeting to the fellow rider and wishing him or her a safe journey.

Both these versions can be compared to the biker version of namaste, the biker in me recognises the biker in you.

Warnings and precautionary signs

Referring to hazards on the road there are one of two manners in wich these can be pointed out, depending if the hazard is to the left or right of the lead bike. Hazard to the left, pointing with the index finger and left arm towards the hazard. If the hazard is on the right, the rider points towards it with his right leg. This is because the rider has to keep his right hand on the throttle to maintain road speed and not become a hazard himself.

To warn approaching riders about police presence ahead of them, a rider will tap the top his helmet with his left palm. This signal may also be used to indicate that a rider should check his or her running lights.

Basic turning and stopping gestures

These types of signs and signals are most often used in emergency situations where a bike’s electronics are malfunctioning or less commonly used in indicating an action for a group of riders. These are similar to the signals for a car.

A rider extending his or her left arm straight out with palm facing down intends to make a left turn.

With the left elbow bent to 90 degrees and a closed fist pointing to the sky, the rider intends to make a right turn.

With the left elbow bent to 90 degrees and open palm pointing back, fingers pointing the road, the rider intends to make a stop.

Group riding signals for communication

These signals are very helpful for an inexperienced group, however more experienced groups will more easily rely on the body language to determine pace.

To signal a group to speed up, the lead rider will extend his or her left arm and swing an open palm in an upwards direction. This is used to inform the group to match the lead bike’s pace by increasing their speed.

To signal a group to slow down, the lead rider will extend his or her left arm and swing it, palm facing down in a downward direction. This signal may also be used to signal a single rider slowing down, as bikes tend to generate intense engine braking force and this does not trigger the rear brake light.

If a rider has forgotten to turn of his or her indicator (bike indicators do not switch off after completing a turn like a car’s does), a fellow rider can indicate this by extending his left arm outwards and making a blinking gesture using his left hand. This is done by opening and closing one’s fist.

If the lead bike has broken away from the group or fallen back in the group, or a group is to split into a smaller groups, a new group leader can signal he or she has the lead by raising his or her left arm forward above the shoulder with the palm facing forward. The easiest way to describe such a signal is comparing it to a high-five, or the gesture made when one intends to ask a question in class.

To nominate another to lead, a rider can pull up alongside the rider one wishes to follow/ want to lead, point at their bike and in one smooth motion swing his or her arm forward. This motion is sometimes repeated until the receiving rider understands what is required.

In narrow roads, a lead rider can indicate all following riders should adopt a single file formation by pointing one’s left arm to the sky and pointing with one’s index finger.

After passing a narrow section the lead rider may signal others to readopt a staggered/double file formation by repeating the above signal but this time including the middle finger, thus holding up two fingers.

Signals for stops and turnoff

In order to signal a group to stop for comfort, or stretching legs, a rider will extend his or her left arm outward and shake his or her fist in short up and down motions. In such a case please make sure that the road shoulder is large enough for the group and debris free in order to avoid drops or falls in the group.

To pull of at a petrol station or restaurant for refreshments a rider can signal by means of a thumbs up gesture with the left hand extending the left arm out and up to the helmet, as if the fist is a glass and the thumb a straw.

To indicate a fuel stop, a rider can communicate this by pointing at his or her fuel tank using the index finger. Keeping your tank topped up can help you avoid having to push your machine or gaining an unwanted nickname.

The next signal is used in cases that a rider needs to pull of the road immediately or at the nearest exit for reasons other than fuel, comfort or refreshment. This is done by extending the left arm outwards, with only the index finger extended, and then moving the arm up above the helmet.

Cheat sheet chart

Here you can see illustrations of how these various signals are executed when riding.

Most important gesture of all

This is not really a signal done by the motorcyclist when riding but it is a very important signal indeed. One I wish all commuters, in cars, trucks and bikes, would recognise this signal, as this can truely save lives. If one ever notices a motorcycle parked next to the road with a helmet behind the bike on the floor, please stop immediately. This signal is supposed to be a universal signal for rider in distress. However few people know about this.

So there you go. That’s the need to know regarding motorcyclist signals and communication. Ride safe and enjoy the journey.


2 thoughts on “Motorcyclist hand gestures: The need to know.

  1. Hi, I’m the friend of a friend. Thank you very much for going through the effort of writing this article! I loved it! It was extremely informative and I will definitely be on the look out 👍


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