Signaling Your Intentions to Other Road Users

Signaling Turns & Other Maneuvers: Hand Signals, Headlights & Car Horn

Updated Oct. 30, 2020

When it comes to sharing the road with other drivers safely, few things are more important than developing good communication skills. Your ability to communicate your intentions to other drivers directly affects your safety and the safety of those around you. Drivers must communicate with other motorists by all available means, using headlights, stop signals, turn signals, hazard lights, the car’s horn and hand signals. Your situation will determine which communication devices should be used.

Hand signals should only be used if other signaling tools – such as turn indicators and brake lights – are malfunctioning. This is unlikely to happen, but you must be prepared for all eventualities. Your knowledge of hand signals will also be assessed during the driving test, so it is essential to master them.

Turn signals

Turn signals are the most effective way to communicate most of the intended maneuvers to other road users. You must activate your turn indicators when changing lanes, exiting or entering a traffic circle or making a turn. Drivers should activate their turn signals early enough to allow motorists behind them time to register and respond.

In most states, the turn signal must be engaged at least 100 feet prior to a turn and kept on until the maneuver is complete. This distance may vary slightly in different states, so we recommend checking your own driving manual for details.

Use turn signals to communicate your intentions to other drivers

Turn indicators may also be used as a substitute for emergency flashers, if the latter signaling device is not functional.

Hand signals for driving

All drivers must easily be able to recall hand signals for two reasons. Obviously, remembering your hand signals will be vital if your turn signals fail and you must communicate your intentions to other drivers. What new drivers often do not consider, is that they will also need to recognize hand signals when they are used by other motorists and cyclists.

Your vehicle may be new and unlikely to malfunction, but the same cannot be said of every other car you encounter while driving. Furthermore, cyclists use hand signals to indicate turns, lane changes and stops all the time! It is highly likely that you will need to share the road with cyclists at some point. Thus, the ability to recognize hand signals is essential.

Even with fully-functional turn indicators you may sometimes need to use hand signals when preparing to turn. It is recommended in most states that drivers use hand signals in very bright sunlight when their lights may not be visible, and when a row of cars may obscure their turn indicators from other drivers.

As we mentioned earlier, your ability to recognize and perform hand signals will be assessed during the driving exam. Kentucky represents the only exception to this rule, as their drivers are currently not required to use hand signals during the test. However, they will still need to recognize hand signals when they are used by other drivers and cyclists.

Use hand signals to communicate with other drivers when your turn indicators are not functioning

Signaling with headlights

Headlights are primarily designed to improve vision at night and during low-visibility situations, though they can also be used to attract another driver’s attention. Often, flashing your headlights can serve as a warning signal. For instance, if another driver approaches you with their high-beam headlights on, you can flash your headlights a couple of times to notify them of the problem. If they do not respond by lowering their lights, you should avert your eyes to the right side of the road to avoid being blinded. Do not switch your own high-beams on in retaliation.

You can flash your headlights to know the other driver that his headlights are blinding you

Signaling with the car horn

The car horn is a seriously over-used signally device. It is intended to warn other drivers or attract their attention in emergency situations only. Do not hit the car horn to express feelings of anger or frustration to other drivers and only use it when absolutely necessary. Drivers should only use their car horn when:

  • Attempting to avoid a collision
  • It is necessary (for safety reasons) to establish contact with another driver

Using your horn incorrectly can startle other drivers, cause accidents and put more vulnerable road users at risk. Under no circumstances should you use your horn to urge cyclists or other drivers to move faster, to alert other drivers of small mistakes that do not pose a danger or to indicate to pedestrians that they may use a crosswalk. We will talk about when you should and should not use your car horn in greater detail.

Use your car horn for emergency situations only

Signaling with taillights

Drivers should signal with their brake lights when they need to slow down or stop, if another vehicle is following too closely behind. Touching the brake pedal lightly a few times will make your brake lights flash and indicate to the other driver that they must increase their following distance. Do not brake suddenly when another driver is close behind you as it could cause a collision.

Tap your brakes a few times to let other drivers know that you're stopping

Would you pass a driving test today?

Find out with our free quiz!


Like the article? Give us 5 points!

Click a star to add your vote

4.7 out of 5 stars based on 17 votes.

Read next

Hand Signals for Driving a Car
Signaling 2 of 4

Hand Signals for Driving

Most drivers assume that remembering hand signals will only be necessary in the unlikely event that their turn indicators fail, but this is not the case. You will need to recognize other road user’s hand signals far more often than you will need to use them yourself. It is possible that other drivers will use hand signals if their indicators are broken, though you are more likely to encounter cyclists using them.

Flashing Headlight at Other Drivers
Signaling 3 of 4

Headlight Flashing

Drivers commonly flash their headlights to attract the attention of other motorists for a variety of reasons. However, most official state driving manuals recommend flashing your headlights only to notify other drivers that their high-beams are on as they approach you from the opposite direction. Leaving your high-beams on can temporarily blind other drivers and cause a collision.

Using Your Car Horn
Signaling 4 of 4

Using Your Car Horn

Sounding your car horn is the most effective way to get another road user’s attention. However, it is also the most aggressive means of communication and as such, must be used sparingly. Some drivers use the car horn to express anger and frustration when things on the road do not go their way. Of the all the incorrect reasons to sound your horn, being angry at another road user takes the prize for worst offense.

Before You Start Driving 5 of 10

Car Reference Points

One of your biggest challenges as a new driver will be learning to identify where your vehicle sits in relation to the roadway. Reference points are the key to positioning and maneuvering your car accurately. Master these visual guides and challenging maneuvers like parallel parking will soon be a walk in the park.

Before You Start Driving 6 of 10

Pre-Drive Checklist

Drivers should never underestimate the importance of the pre-drive checklist. Looking behind the vehicle to make sure there are no children and animals there, making sure your seat belt is on, adjusting your seat and mirrors, making sure the windshield is clean - you have to go through all these things every time before you start driving.

Before You Start Driving 7 of 10

Steering Techniques

Getting to grips with the various possible steering techniques begins with learning to position your hands on the steering wheel appropriately for the immediate driving situation and learning and practicing several different steering methods. These include the “hand to hand” technique (pull-push steering) and the “hand over hand” technique.

Before You Start Driving 8 of 10

Backing Up a Car

Alongside parallel parking, backing up is one of the most dreaded maneuvers in the practical driving exam. Drivers must operate the steering wheel and pedals situated in front of them, while looking back to position the vehicle and check for obstacles. With enough practice it will become just as effortless as driving forward.

Before You Start Driving 9 of 10

Acceleration Techniques

When you press the gas pedal, more fuel is fed into the engine and the vehicle’s speed increases. New drivers must learn to control their speed with effective acceleration techniques and utilize these skills appropriately on the roads.

Before You Start Driving 10 of 10

Braking Techniques

There a variety of complex techniques involved in slowing down or stopping your vehicle; slamming on the brakes is rarely the best course of action. Remember that you may be able to achieve the desired speed reduction simply by removing your foot from the accelerator; applying the brakes is not always necessary. If you do need to reapply the brakes, do so with a smooth, building pressure.