To Signal or Not to Signal… That is the Question! When to use Car Indicator Signals

car indicator signals - Signal or not?“Hello Ged, I’m looking to get your opinion on the “use of car indicator signals”.  A discussion has started up in our local association with regards to following traffic and giving signals.

Some say that once you have stopped and taken up position in a meeting situation, you should put on your signal to show your attention to all parties. Others say that you should solely use your vehicle position to show your intention and no signal is required.

Basically, would you give a signal every time you are stopped from making progress?

Another question on signals also came up today – some instructors are saying that when changing back to lane 2 or lane 1 on dual carriageways or motorways that we should always give a signal.  Would you say that it’s necessary?

I would be interested to find out your opinion on these points and pass them on to the association.”

When to use Car Indicator Signals

This is a regular topic of discussion with many PDIs that are working towards their Part 2, and I also often come across it when assessing ADIs in preparation for their Check Test.  In a nutshell, many PDIs and ADIs are guilty of trying to create a ‘one rule fits all’ approach.  In the modern world, this just isn’t workable – there are far too many factors to take into account, and besides, a good driver should be able to decide if and when a signal is appropriate, or when one could lead to confusion or even danger.

The main occasions when a driver would consider using car indication signals and giving a mechanical indicator signal are when:

•    Moving off
•    Stopping
•    Turning at junctions
•    Overtaking
•    Changing lanes
•    Passing stationary or very slow-moving vehicles (includes meeting situations)

The situations you have described relate to the last two in the list, but let’s take a brief look at each of the other ones first, examining the ‘if’ factor, initially:

Moving off & Stopping

In my experience, most driving instructors get this part across to their pupils well, suggesting that they give a signal if necessary, i.e. if another road user could benefit.  But then we should ask ourselves if it is dangerous to signal to move off or stop when nobody is around?  Not at all – but a good driver should be able to demonstrate an ability to determine the necessity of such a signal.

Changing lanes

Signalling to Change LanesMany say that a driver should always use car indicator signals when changing lanes, but there may be times when it’s not absolutely necessary to, e.g. if moving from lane 2 to 1 on a dual carriageway or motorway, with NOTHING ahead or following behind in lane 2.

But again, one should consider if giving a signal in situations such as these could cause a danger?  If there are junctions or slip lanes ahead, drivers and other road users may think we are doing something in addition to a lane change, i.e. leaving the carriageway via the slip road.  In that case, however, I would argue that the physical act of changing lanes at this point would demonstrate poor planning and anticipation.


This is the one situation in which I believe using car indicator signals would almost always be of benefit.  Even if there are no vehicles approaching from ahead or behind, the driver of the vehicle we are overtaking will certainly benefit if he/she is considering a lane change themselves, or check their mirrors to see if it’s safe to move around an object / hazard in the road.

Turning at Junctions

This can be a point of contention in the world of advanced driving.  I have had several discussions with RoSPA and IAM observers who maintain that if nobody is around to benefit from a signal, then it should not be given.  My counter-argument is always the same – what if there is someone out of view who could benefit, e.g. a pedestrian around the corner.  The observers then often create a mental image of a completely flat road, with no hedges, no obstructions, and no other road users in sight, then ask me, “in that case, is a signal necessary?”  The answer is ‘no’, of course, but how many times in real life do we come across that idyllic image?  And even if we did, what would be the problem with signalling anyway?  What danger would it cause?

Passing stationary or slow-moving vehicles

When discussing car indicator signals, many often forget that there are three other very important signals we give as a driver (besides our vehicle’s mechanical signals): our personal body language, our vehicle’s position, and our vehicle’s speed.

When referring to our personal body language, I am referring to direct eye contact, the physical movement which may be made when checking the right door mirror and right blind spot before moving out, the right hand taking up a higher position on the steering wheel, ready for moving out to the right, etc.

Our vehicle’s position on the road is the main signal of intent we send out to other road users.  For example, if we saw a driver waiting to emerge from a T-Junction with a right signal on, but taking up a position to turn left, we would tend to trust the position more than the signal, or at the very least, hold back to wait and see which signal is correct.

In a meeting situation, our road position is extremely important, and one could argue that is the only signal usually necessary.  However, this is where we come around to your initial question – “would we give a signal every time you are stopped from making progress?”  I am guessing that having read my perspectives on signals given in other situation above, that my answer will not come as a surprise… and that is, we should give a mechanical signal if necessary.

What if the road you are travelling along is extremely narrow, with parked vehicles either side, and you need to move close in to the left to allow an oncoming vehicle to come through?  In this case, your road position ‘signal’ is lost, and your position may be such that following traffic may assume you have parked up.  So would an indicator signal be useful in this case?  Most certainly.

Another example of when I have personally used a signal in a meeting situation was only last week, when travelling along the main road through our local village.  My side of the road was completely blocked by about 30 metres of road works, not controlled by any means.  On approach to the situation, I saw vehicles approaching from the opposite direction, so duly stopped to give way, as their side of the road was clear.  Over the next minute or so, I was faced with an endless stream of vehicles approaching, none of whom had recognised that a large line of traffic was beginning to build up behind me.  So I faced a dilemma:

  1. “Sit tight and wait for a natural gap in the traffic?” (which could have taken a VERY long time!), or
  2. “Signal my desire to move out, in the hope that an oncoming driver will be courteous enough to concede priority?”

Due to the length of the road works, my view well up the road and the fact that oncoming drivers were either not noticing my road position ‘signal’ or choosing to ignore it, I decided on option 2, and gave a right indicator signal.  This was used as a polite ‘request’ for oncoming drivers to hold back to allow me to come through.  And it worked.

So why not signal in the first place?  Well, remember that car indicator signals show intent – they can indicate a desire to turn right as well as move out, so had there been any junctions on the right, oncoming and following drivers may assume my intention is to turn into that junction.  My signal could also have been interpreted by some as ‘bullyish behaviour’ – after all, my side of the road was blocked, so I should really concede priority to oncoming traffic.

We are more likely to react to signals if we see them from the moment they are applied.  For example, consider the times when you have been in a stream of fast-flowing traffic and have seen a driver pulled up on the left with a right signal on.  Or the vehicle in lane 1 of a motorway that has seemingly left their signal on, because they are showing no intentions of actually moving into lane 2.  After a while, a signal becomes somewhat ‘redundant’ – people tend to ignore it and carefully drive past (often shaking their head!).

So when giving car indicator signals, we also need to think about their timing.

WHEN to Signal?

The timing of our mechanical signal is a very important consideration; giving a signal to move off just as a vehicle is about to pass could prove dangerous – the other driver may take some form of avoidance action as a result (swerving or braking).  Similarly, leaving a signal on whilst waiting for a gap in fairly fast-flowing traffic could have similar affects.  But when traffic flow is very slow, and no gaps are apparent, a signal could be used to seek ‘permission’ from drivers coming up behind to move out into the flow.

On approach to junctions, signalling too late leaves drivers behind with little time to consider how your actions will affect their driving plan.  Giving one too early could lead to a driver behind attempting an overtake manoeuvre before you have pulled over.  Similarly, other road users (such as drivers emerging from junctions or pedestrians wishing to cross the road) could be confused by our intentions.

To Summarise the use of Car Indicator Signals…

As good driver coaches, we need to develop THINKING drivers, drivers who are able to self-evaluate and have developed a strategy to decide if a signal is necessary, and when would be the best time to give it.  This strategy will not only serve them well on the day of their driving test, but will also keep them safe and responsible throughout the rest of their lives.

Just like almost everything we teach, there are almost always shades of grey – must we ALWAYS adhere to the speed limit?  Must we NEVER cross a stop line at a red traffic light?  Must we NEVER enter a bus lane during its period of operation?  I am sure all of us have been in situations where these ‘rules’ have had to be broken…

During a practical driving test, examiners have been trained to look at the given situation and make a judgement based on the circumstances at the time.  They are not training to record a driving fault if a pupil signals in a meeting situations if he/she sees the benefit of them doing so.  They do not have a set of pre-determined rules that should be adhered to when changing lanes on a dual carriageway or motorway.  They are trained to assess if a signal was necessary, if the timing was appropriate, and if the correct signal was given.

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  • Hi Ged,

    I completely agree with your excellent advice regarding the correct or incorrect use of signals.
    As you say the best way to train/coach new drivers (and those involved in advanced or fleet driving)is to create a THINKING driver as opposed to one who is told to signal with little explanation of why.

    We all see countless examples of incorrect or dangerous signals with many applied too late to be of any advantage to other road users.
    I frequently travel on Motorway’s and I can honestly say that the vast majority of drivers apply a signal when they are already moving to change lanes. Whilst one could argue that this makes them more visible it makes it difficult for following drivers to anticipate their intentions.
    With Motorway or Dual-Carriageway driving it is difficult to use your position as an intention so effective mirror checks and a well timed signal are essential.

    Developing a new driver’s ability to evaluate situations and risks through coaching is, in my opinion the way forward for driver training.

  • Hi,
    Very very important to show our pupils that driving is not black and white…..I put alot of stuff in what I call ‘the grey box’. In other words things need thought and consideration at the time….no two situations are ever the same.
    Thinking drivers is the key

  • completly agree with what you have said , only other time I tell my pupils they must put a signal on is when they move off from behind a parked car ( angled start ) this is to inform car approaching of your intension more than cars behind as you would only move off if the road behind was safe to do so

  • Ref dual carriageway if moving back into lane 1 from lane 2 your pupils must use door then interior mirrors to see if they are passed the vehicle, if no vehicle behind you no sig, but if a vehicle is behind you how far is it we have to get our pupils to think is a signal going to help.Approaching and turning into a road signal as it may benefit traffic or pedestrians that you cannot yet see

  • Hi Ged
    I thought I would take a look at the question mentioned on facebook and now on reflection I cant agree more with the THINKING driver. Im sure that the more look at this reply the safer roads can become

  • Totally in agreement with you Ged. Will be pointing all my pupils to this article as it always helps to realise someone else is saying exactly the same thing as your instructor is saying – it’s that ‘social proof’ thing!! Learning all the points that need to be considered when deciding whether or not to give a (mechanical) signal aids the process to becoming a thinking driver.

  • Ron

    Are you required to signal when moving off from car park(from bay)?

    • Hi Ron, if another road user could benefit from knowing we were about to move off towards the left or right, then yes. But one always has to consider the prevailing traffic conditions at the time – there is no ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, unfortunately!

  • I totally agree with your comments above. Too many don’t signal when it would be of help to inform others of your ‘intention’ – not necessarily what you are going to do, but what you would like to do. No signal effectively means ‘Guess what my intention of what I would like to do’.

    I had an example of this on a driving lesson a few months ago as follows:

    We were driving along a road when ahead of us there were vehicles parked on both sides of the road. As there were a couple of vehicles approaching, we signalled to the right as we reduced speed in an attempt to reach the parked vehicles just as the oncoming vehicles had passed. As we started to move out to the right to take up our position to pass the parked vehicles, two of those ‘parked’ vehicles also moved out – with no signal! To all intents and purposes those two vehicles were also parked as the road was narrow and they were tucked in behind the other parked vehicles. At the very least the second car which was waiting should have put his right-turn signal on when he saw us approaching from behind.

  • Ged Wilmot


  • Chrissy

    What is the legal SIGNAL to give other drivers way i.e letting someone out from a side road (that’s in front of you and they intend to turn right – or even drive in front of you)??

    • Ged Wilmot

      Hi Chrissy,

      There isn’t one. Giving ANY form of signal (such as beckoning another road user with a hand gesture or flashing the headlights) could result in the emerging driver taking your word that it is safe to emerge. This is so very dangerous as there could be a motorcyclist, cyclist, pedestrian or other road user passing. My advice to driving instructors and to drivers is simply to hold back and make eye contact with the driver you are giving way to. These ‘signals’ alone should allow the other road user to understand your intention, but it means that they are more likely to take care to observe properly when emerging from the junction or turning into the junction. I hope that answers your question?