When you are driving you use signals in order to inform, not to instruct. Giving the correct signals at the right time and in the right way is an essential part of good driving, as visible and audible signals are your only way of communicating with other road users. But it should always be borne in mind that you must never use signals to give orders to other drivers; a signal never gives you the right to make a move, such as a lane-change on a motorway, on the assumption that other drivers will give way. Police officers who deal with accidents are used to hearing the excuse, 'But I gave a signal', from the driver who has caused the trouble.
The art of proper signalling is a complex part of advanced driving which requires practice as well as learning. As in so many areas of advanced driving, the ground rules are simple: use only those signals described in the Highway Code. Do not make up your own signals or copy those adopted by other drivers; even if a personal signalling device seems perfectly clear to you, it could be dangerously misleading to someone who sees it for the first time and does not understand what you are trying to 'say'.
You must never expect other drivers to react in the right way to your correct signalling. Another motorist may not see your signal; he may not interpret it correctly; he may not act on it sensibly. Since you can never take it as read that another driver will recognise your intentions, always drive accordingly.
Most of the signals you make during driving involve your car's direction indicators. They are used not only for turning left and right, but also for changing your position on the road. Use them thoughtfully and in good time so that other road users know what you are doing and can take action accordingly. For example, if you plan to turn right at a set of traffic lights, signal your intention early so that drivers behind you have plenty of time to move across to the inside lane and pass you on the nearside as you slow down. Keep your direction indicator winking all the time, even if your right-turning stream comes to a stop, so that other drivers behind you who want to go straight on do not get into the wrong lane.
When overtaking, keep the right-turn signal going until you begin to move back to the nearside, as its flashing will show oncoming drivers in the distance what you are doing. Although many motorists signal a left-turn as they move back in after an overtaking manoeuvre, this is generally unnecessary unless an unforeseen development ahead - something which should not happen with good planning - forces you to cut in sharply.
One of the most common driving faults you see in day-to-day motoring is failure to give proper signals. As an advanced driver, make sure that you are never guilty of this, as so many accidents are caused by sleepy or thoughtless drivers making manoeuvres without signalling. Always use your direction indicators properly at junctions, at roundabouts, when overtaking and when pulling in at the side of the road. Never think that a signal is unnecessary at quiet times of the day or night just because no-one else seems to be about. At the same time, signals are occasionally used over-zealously. When driving along an urban road dotted with parked cars, you do not need to signal every time you prepare to pass one; in a situation such as this, use your direction indicators intelligently when drivers behind would benefit from foreknowledge of an unexpected hazard, such as a particularly obstructive parked car or a cyclist on a relatively narrow road.
Hand signals are used far less frequently today than they used to be. However, there is still a place for them on occasions when they can emphasise your intentions in case other drivers are in any doubt about what your direction indicators are being used for.
It used to be regarded as polite and normal to tell another driver of your intention to pull in at the side of the road by giving the left-turn hand signal — a circular wave of the hand in an anti-clockwise direction. Nowadays a simple left-turn signal on the direction indicator has become normal practice, but sometimes it is useful to wind down the window and give the old-fashioned hand signal as well. If a driver behind is particularly close or if traffic conditions seem to warrant it, use the hand signal to give more emphatic warning of your intentions. Just because you rarely see the signal used, do not ignore it altogether.
The same advice applies to the slowing-down signal an up-and-down movement with the palm facing downwards, as if you are repeatedly pressing down on a weight. The right time for this signal is when you think that the driver behind is either too close or driving inattentively, and therefore might not realise that you are coming to a halt in traffic. The signal is particularly appropriate when you stop at a pedestrian crossing. Sometimes you see well-meaning drivers confuse the slowing-down and left-turn signals - a driver pulling in at the side of the road might give the 'I am stopping, you should too' up-and-down hand signal instead of the correct `I am pulling into the kerb' rotary wave. He would be very surprised if you followed his instructions and pulled in behind to ask what the trouble was. Make sure, therefore, that you understand the distinction between these two hand signals so that you do not cause confusion on the occasions when their emphasis is valuable.
Left-turn and right-turn hand signals at junctions are also only necessary these days to emphasise your plans when you believe that other road users might benefit. A likely instance is when you plan to turn off where two side roads are close to each other, and you want to make it clear which one you are going to take. A right-turn hand signal can be valuable to show that you are intending to turn right and are not just pulling out to pass a parked vehicle. A left-turn hand signal can also help if you have to pull in to the side of the road at a point near a junction; ordinary use of the direction indicator alone might be interpreted as an intention to turn off down the side road. Remember also that hand signals can be useful to communicate your intentions to a police officer controlling traffic at a junction.
There are two hand signals which you must never use, although many drivers do in the belief that they are being courteous to other road users. These are the 'You can overtake me' wave to a following vehicle and the 'Please cross' gesture to pedestrians on a crossing. The problem with these is that if you make a mistake you could be guilty of causing an accident through your good intentions. Both are omitted from the Highway Code because it is impossible for you to judge, from your position in the driving seat, whether other road-users — drivers or pedestrians — can safely accept your invitation. Leave it to them to make their own judgement. Since irresponsible drivers seem increasingly willing to break the law by overtaking on either side of traffic halted at a pedestrian crossing, the possible consequences of someone crossing at your request do not bear thinking about.
There is also considerable risk of misunderstanding headlight signals, so use them only when they are valuable to draw the attention of other road users to your presence, as the Highway Code instructs. There are many circumstances where one driver uses a flash of the headlights to convey a message, and another driver interprets it as meaning something quite different. Most people have experienced examples of the confusion which can result. On a motorway, for example, a driver in lane 3 might flash his headlights as he comes up on a driver in lane 2 who is clearly looking for an opportunity to overtake: is he saying 'Look out, I'm coming through' or `Come along, I'm easing off to let you out'?
The misused practice of headlamp flashing can just as easily cause trouble in town. If you are waiting to emerge from a side turning and an approaching car's headlights flash, do you take the message to be 'Don't move, I'm coming through' or 'Although I'm on the main road I'm slowing down to let you out'? More often than not 'flasher' and 'flashed-at' are on the same wavelength, but an accident is a real possibility every time they are not. You must, therefore, use headlight signals with great caution and only when it seems really necessary to warn other road users of your presence. Always be very careful to make sure that your intentions are not open to misinterpretation: although you will always use headlight flashing in accordance with the Highway Code, do not assume that other motorists will not read more into the message.
To add to the confusion, truck drivers have their own headlight code, whereby one driver tells another overtaking driver that the tail of his lorry has passed the front of his own and it is safe to pull back to the nearside. Since truck drivers are not used to cars being in this 'club', there is no need for you to adopt the same practice.
Brake lights cannot be misunderstood by anybody: they work automatically and their message is totally clear. The advanced driver, however, can also use his brake lights thoughtfully to convey additional information to following drivers. If you consider a driver is following too closely, it is a good idea when you approach any hazard to brake lightly at first to give him time to drop back to a safe distance before you have to brake more firmly. Never be self-righteous, though, in using brake lights to warn another driver to drop back. Some drivers have been known to be stupid enough to dab the brakes in a fast-moving flow of traffic just to shake someone off the back bumper; the result could be a chain reaction of braking which results in a nose-to-tail collision behind.
Thoughtful communication with your brake lights can be useful if you are the last car in a line of traffic stopped unexpectedly, perhaps just over the brow of a hill, round a bend or on a motorway. By applying the brakes regularly, even when stationary, your lights can warn the next driver that little bit earlier that traffic is at a standstill and not just moving slowly.
Remember that brake lights are just as likely as direction indicators to fail in one or both bulbs, so check all your lights regularly. An easy way to check is by running through the lights at night with your car positioned close to a wall or another vehicle: you should be able to see the glow from each bulb quite clearly.
As with the headlights, the horn should be used only to inform other road users of your presence. Remember that it is illegal, except in an emergency to avoid an accident, to sound your horn between 11.30pm and 7.00am in a built-up area or at any time of day or night if the car is stationary.
Sensible use of the horn is valuable as a warning. If children are playing in a residential street, or an absentminded driver starts to pull out from a side road in front of you, a polite tap on the button might be useful. Never use the horn, though, as a substitute for the observation, planning and courtesy which are the mark of a good driver. Several slightly longer notes on the horn can often be a good idea on a main road when overtaking a driver who may not be aware of your presence. A lorry or tractor driver in a noisy cab, for example, may have such restricted rearward vision that he has not noticed you. Always remember, however, that British drivers seem far more ready to take offence at the sound of a horn than their continental counterparts, so use your horn with discretion when overtaking. If they think a note on the horn is not delivered politely, some drivers take it as a reprimand, a challenge or an insult, and react accordingly.
Thoughtful and courteous use of the horn is what counts. You may not use it often, but to believe that it should never be used is a mistake.
- Use your direction indicators to inform other drivers of your intentions, not to give orders to them. Use them correctly, consistently and thoughtfully.
- Use only the hand signals given in the Highway Code: although you see hand signals given relatively rarely these days, they should still be employed in circumstances where other road users would benefit from emphasis of your intentions.
- Remember that headlight signals can easily be misunderstood by other road users; flash your lights only when it is necessary to warn other road users of your presence and when your intentions cannot be misinterpreted.
- Use the horn sensibly in the same way as headlight signals: to let other road users know you are there.