Once upon a time, in a land and a time far away from here, it was expected that drivers presenting for their L test might be required to demonstrate, practically, their knowledge and application of hand signals: the ones that appeared in the Highway Code, not the ones whose interpretation rests with an in-depth knowledge of more vulgar forms of the vernacular.

These signals existed to reinforce or supplement (or in some cases replace altogether) left or right turn indicators and brake lights. I remember well when, in an attempt to show off to my examiner, I determined to launch my arm out of the driver's window to add weight to my brake lights as I dutifully slowed to allow a pedestrian to cross on a zebra crossing - totally forgetting to open the window in the first place. As well as a bruised elbow and a charitable laugh from the examiner the other thing I obtained from that experience became a desire to learn more about the art of communication between road users. After all, apart from exercising my ego, there was absolutely nothing to be gained by anyone if I'd been successful in giving the 'I'm slowing down' signal that I'd intended. There were no vehicles or other road users behind me who would have benefited from the signal and, that I was intending to give way to the pedestrian (who would not in any case have been able see my paw-waving) was made abundantly clear to her (the pedestrian) because I was losing speed and eventually came to a halt at the crossing.

Many, many, many drivers learn signalling as a form of communication by rote. The problem with this is that signalling (again, primarily, the use of indicators and brake lights) becomes an automatic response rather than a conscious decision. Why is that a problem? Well, it means that they are just as likely to give a misleading signal as a meaningful one or to hide the true 'intent' of their message through a display of son et lumiere.

A couple of observations I'd like to share with you:

  • Drivers who've never really thought in any depth about the purposes of signals will tend to use phrases like 'Oh, I always signal just to be on the safe side'. The reality is that they rarely signal when actually it would be jolly helpful so to do and do give signals when they (the signals) are of absolutely no consequence whatsoever. To anyone.
  • Many drivers will, when asked about the things that wind them up most about other drivers, say the lack of signalling. But they are the same drivers who will be just as likely to pull into lane 3 of the motorway as much faster traffic bears downs on them, without the merest indication.
  • I was met with disbelief not very long ago when I asserted that if I really put my mind to it, I could drive the 60-odd miles home without giving a single signal and, more importantly, without any other road user noticing or being in any way inconvenienced by my progress. You may not believe it either but with planning, awareness, anticipation, high levels of concentration and the use of road positioning, speed and road 'presence' it is possible.

On the road, there are fundamentally only two reasons for giving signals - one is to show your intention (hope, aspiration, asking permission) to do something (change direction, lane, position or speed) or out of courtesy (respect, friendliness) to another road user (when leaving a roundabout, for example).

In the first of these, there's a very good chance that you'll need another road user to alter their behaviour (maybe by only a very small amount) to allow you to carry out your chosen 'manoeuvre'.

For example, you may be slowing down on your approach to a junction. What do you need a following vehicle to do as well (in order to keep you safe)? Clearly, they'll need to slow down also!

How will you encourage them to slow down? Give a hand signal? Hardly. The only tools you have, normally, are your brake lights. How aware is the average driver? Not very. In fact they'll only be concentrating on what they're doing (the incredibly complex task of driving) for about 25% of the available time. So, what do you need to wake them from their reverie and reduce the likelihood of them ramming you from behind? Time. How much time? Well, clearly this varies depending upon the circumstances but it's generally agreed that for any signal to be truly effective, it will need to have been given for a minimum of four seconds before the manoeuvre is to be carried out in earnest.

Why so long? Well, just like most forms of communication, this is a two-way process. You show your intention to slow down (for example) but you need the following vehicle's driver to note your intention and, more importantly, to act on that information. You now need to monitor their response and get confirmation that they are doing what you need them to do. All being as it should be, you can now do whatever you need to do. And if all is not well, you have more time to adopt 'plan b' - whatever that might be.

The Highway Code is quite explicit about the use of horn or headlights as a means of communication, so I'll not labour the point here as I'm sure you carry the good old HC in your glove compartment, available at all times for those moments of uncertainty!

So, I'll close simply by suggesting that if you want to lift your driving to a better and more interesting level then perhaps you could give some (more) thought to what you say, how you say it, to whom you are talking and why? You never know, you might eventually make more friends than enemies out there in the road world.

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