To Signal, Or Not To Signal

Night lights

This article was originally published in 2015 after I saw an argument on a driving forum. I noticed a similar argument more recently, so I thought I’d update it.

The general rule is that you should signal whenever it would help another road user, including cyclists and pedestrians, to understand your intentions. However, some instructors seem to be hung up on trying to find reasons not to indicate just to show how clever they are, and they lose sight of everything else.

Using a simple example. When you are moving off from the side of the road or pulling over you should check your mirrors/blind spots and decide if a signal is needed. Although a PDI who was doing their Part 2 test would probably pick up a fault if they signalled when no one was there, learners on their driving tests almost certainly wouldn’t as long as they had checked their mirrors first. At the other extreme, not signalling to move off/pull over when someone is behind you is almost a guaranteed serious or dangerous fault.

Unfortunately, many ADIs have great difficulty dealing with things which aren’t black or white, and so create silly all-encompassing “rules” to teach to their pupils. As a result, some advise their learners to always signal whenever they move off or pull up, which is completely wrong. Examiners will usually let it go if the correct observations have been made, and no one else was affected. But in many instances, the observations have been half-hearted, and the pupil hasn’t seen that someone is approaching.

When it comes to turning left or right at junctions, though, this is where the confusion really takes hold. Neither The Essential Skills (TES, for normal drivers, available from Amazon, above) nor Roadcraft (which was written specifically for police drivers, also available from Amazon, above) state explicitly that you must signal for every junction, but neither do they state explicitly that you might not need to. Consequently, ADIs attempt to apply the guidance given for moving off/pulling over directly to turning at junctions. The result is that they end up teaching incorrect or inappropriate things. Let’s consider some examples to try and understand what should be taught.Car indicator cluster

To start with, learners should be taught to use the MSM routine (from TES) and not the IPSGA routine (Roadcraft).

MSM is specifically mentioned in the Highway Code several times, and it stands for “mirrors-signal-manoeuvre”  (acronym collectors will also use MSPSL (mirrors-signal-position-speed-look), MSPSGL (mirrors-signal-position-speed-gear-look), MSPSLADA (mirrors-signal-position-speed-look-assess-decide-act), or any number of similar variants). The basic application of this is that on approaching a junction the driver should check their mirrors (M) and signal (S) in good time (though not too early), adjust their position (P) and speed (S) – which usually involves dropping into a lower gear (G) – look (L) at the junction as they get closer, assess the situation (A), make a decision about how to proceed (D), then act confidently (A) and complete the manoeuvre.

The vital detail here is that the signal stage is initiated long before the point at which the driver could be certain that there was no one around to benefit from it. By definition, and except in the most theoretical of situations which are unlikely to prevail in the real world, you would only know that the signal was unnecessary way after the point at which you should have signalled for you to be applying MSM properly. Any learner who delayed applying their signal for that long – and particularly if it then turned out that one was needed after all – would definitely be chasing down a test fail.

Now, if you had an unlikely junction which was in the middle of a vast, flat expanse of closely-cropped grassland, where you could see for many hundreds of metres in all directions as you approached it, and you could therefore be completely and utterly certain that you were the only road user around, then there would be absolutely no point in giving a signal to turn left or right. The problem is that 99.9999% of junctions are not like that (especially when they’re on test routes), so there is little point droning on and on about the one dreamt of last night).Indicator dashboard light

The argument I was following when I first wrote this article next raised the question of how close another driver has to be to you before they enter the zone where you and your actions are likely to interfere with theirs, thus changing a “no signal” situation into a “signal” one. It is a needless complication for normal drivers. If someone is there, just check your mirrors and signal.

I’ve lost count of the times one of my pupils has approached a junction or roundabout, seen that it is apparently clear while they’re a few car lengths short of the line, gone for the emerge – only for me to have to use the dual controls because someone else has suddenly turned up. They have made their decision too early, and exactly the same thing can happen if you’re farting about trying not to signal when just signalling in the first place isn’t actually wrong.

While we’re on the subject, I’ve also lost count of the times a pupil of mine has emerged somewhere without checking properly (and I have, and seen that it is safe, which is why I’ve let them do it), and when I’ve pulled them over to discuss it they’ve said:

But there was no one else there!

This immediately earns the lecture about how they couldn’t possibly know that if they hadn’t looked properly, and especially if they couldn’t actually see – which in most cases they couldn’t at the point where they made their decision to go. The lecture works even better if they do it and there is someone coming, because then I can give my supplementary “I told you so” lecture, as well. It often helps to drive them slowly through the junction again with me doing the controls so that they can see how far away they were from being able to see clearly, and how close to the give way line they really needed to be before making a decision.

The whole debate about not signalling at junctions for learners is stupid, pointless, and dangerous.

What is MSM?

It stands for “mirrors-signal-manoeuvre”, and it is the procedure you should use whenever you are driving and want to change course or direction. You don’t just use it for turning corners.

Some people refer to it by other acronyms – MSPSL, MSPSLADA, MSPSGL, and so on (as I explained above). But it is the same procedure they are talking about. Note that MSM is not the same as IPSGA, which is the system mentioned in Roadcraft. Roadcraft is the police drivers handbook and it is absolutely not intended to be the primary source of training material for normal drivers. Unfortunately, many ADIs have ideas well above their station and are incapable of understanding this, and try to teach too many Roadcraft-only principles to people who can’t even steer yet.

MSM is only a guiding principle. You often need to supplement the first M with blind spot and/or shoulder checks, and in the case of the S a signal may or may not be required depending on the circumstances.

Should I always signal when I am moving off?

Technically, no. You should check all around and only signal if there is someone there to benefit from it. People who might benefit include pedestrians and cyclists as well as other drivers. However, as long as you have checked you are unlikely to be penalised on your test for signalling to move away if there is no one there. Personally, I teach my own pupils the correct way from the outset, but as long as they have checked that it’s safe, and as long as they signal just before they move off (and not before they’re ready to go), I don’t worry about it too much.

When should I signal when I’m moving off?

When you are ready to move. Don’t signal before you have it in gear, and don’t signal before you have done your mirror and blind spot checks.

As a rough rule of thumb, if someone is coming up reasonably close behind you, you are not going to move off, and a signal would potentially cause confusion. A signal for moving off is most frequently for the benefit of oncoming vehicles, pedestrians, and parked vehicles which have (or might have) people inside. If you signal every time you move off, you’ll probably not get marked for it as long as your safety checks have been done and you don’t pull out in front of someone. Technically, though, you shouldn’t signal if there’s no one around who will benefit from it.

What if there is heavy traffic?

Usually, a signal is used to inform others of your intentions. It doesn’t give you any guaranteed right of way, and moving off is your decision based on your own safety checks. However, in very heavy and slow-moving traffic you can use a signal as a request to be let out – and I emphasise it is a “request” and not an excuse to just pull out. Wait until someone slows down to let you out, and if they flash their lights at you make damned sure they’re flashing at you, and not someone else waiting to move off or emerge from a side road.

Should I always signal when I am pulling up?

Same as I explained above. Technically, no. But be careful if you decide to do it anyway, because there is the risk of signalling too early and so being marked for a poorly timed signal (i.e. if there is a junction on your left) which isn’t an issue when you’re moving off.

Does it matter if I just signal to pull up anyway?

You will almost certainly get away with it if you do it on your test, as long as you check your mirrors first as part of the MSM routine.

How do I tell if someone will benefit or not?

This is why the whole issue is not as black or white as some would like it to be. For example, if there is a car parked in front of you as you move to pull up alongside the kerb, and there is someone in it, your signal would benefit them by informing them of your intentions. But can you be certain there is someone actually in the car? Sometimes you can see them, but other times – and particularly when there is poor lighting – you can’t be sure. So if in any doubt, just use a signal.

What does “signal if it will benefit others” mean?

One example. You’re parked at the side of the road and want to drive away. You’re in gear, gas and bite set, hand on your handbrake. What now?

If the road is completely empty it’s OK to release the handbrake and go. There is no need at all to indicate, because there is no one around who will see it – as in ‘benefit’ from it. However, if you do choose to use your indicator, it doesn’t matter – so long as you have checked.

Same situation, but someone is coming towards you the opposite way. This time, a signal tells them you’ll be moving away.

Same situation, but someone is approaching from behind. If they are close enough, let them pass and keep your indicator off. If there’s time to move off, signal and do it. Now they know you’re pulling out.

Same situation, but there is a parked car near you with someone in it. A signal lets them know you’re moving away in caser they were also thinking of pulling out. The same would apply if you weren’t sure if there was someone in the parked car.

Same situation, but there are pedestrians walking along the pavement. A signal tells them you’re moving away in case they were thinking of walking in front of you.

Basically, as long as you have checked, it doesn’t matter if you signal whether there’s anyone there or not. It’s just that if there isn’t, you don’t need to – but if there is, you should.

Should I signal if I’m in a lane which only goes one way?

Technically, there is no need to signal if the lane you’re in has a left- or right-only arrow painted on it. However, sometimes people use these lanes incorrectly and giving a signal might make sense (remember that when a signal is “of benefit to other road users”, it doesn’t just mean the good ones). As long as you don’t mislead or confuse anyone, you shouldn’t be penalised for indicating in these situations.

When should I give the signal?

It needs to be properly timed and not misleading. If you’re going to give a signal for moving off, do it just after you release the handbrake (just before is OK, but I prefer just after). Don’t start signalling before you’ve even got the car into gear – it drives me mad when my pupils do that. Leaving the indicator on for too long is confusing to other road users. Signalling should be the last thing you do before you move away after you’ve made sure it is safe enough to go.

When pulling up, don’t signal too soon such that people might think you are turning left, or that you are going to stop sooner than you are.

Will I fail if I always signal to move off or pull up?

No, not if you have checked to see if it is safe first. However, signalling unnecessarily when moving off or stopping is technically wrong, so try to do it properly instead of just trying to play safe. If you think about what you’re doing, it’s likely to be much more reliable than just doing the same thing each time without thinking.

Should I always signal when I am turning left or right at a junction?

You should be using the MSM routine, and this means that you should be signalling to turn left or right long before you find out if anyone was in the road you are turning into. So the answer is pretty much yes – unless you have one of those magical open junctions that everyone seems to think of when they start getting confused about signals, or if you want to play Russian Roulette with the examiner on your test.

But what if I can see that there is no one around to benefit?

Look, it’s up to you. If you are 100% certain – and I mean really 100% – that there is no possibility of someone turning up even when you’re back at the point where you should have begun your MSM routine, then there really is no need to signal. But what have you got to lose by signalling for a left or right turn anyway? Except in the Magical World of perfectly flat and featureless landscapes you are unlikely to be able to guarantee no one will turn up, and it won’t be marked if you do signal (even if it was it would only attract a driver (minor) fault). On the other hand, if you choose not to and the examiner disagrees that a signal was unnecessary you’re chasing down a serious fault. Don’t be a smart arse, and especially not on your driving test!

Should I signal to overtake a bus?

It depends. If it is clear ahead and you’re travelling at a normal speed, and if the bus has only just stopped, a signal probably isn’t needed. Anyone following can see what you’re going to do, and the bus driver is dealing with his pick up and wouldn’t benefit from your signal.

If the bus has been stopped for a while, there is an increasing likelihood that he will want to move off. A signal would inform the bus driver of your intentions, and if he is even partly a good driver he will wait until you’ve passed. Just allow for the fact that a lot of bus drivers aren’t even partly good drivers, and may well move off as you are passing, so be prepared to stay calm and get past promptly and safely.

If you’ve had to slow down or stop behind the bus to wait for oncoming traffic, and then intend to pass the bus when it becomes clear, a signal for traffic following you becomes important. It warns them that you are going to overtake, so they ought not to try to overtake you and the bus together. Allow for the fact that some drivers will still go for it – BMW and Audi drivers especially, because they have go-fast pratmobiles that can accelerate quickly.

If there are pedestrians or other road users around who look like they’re going to try and cross the road, a signal would benefit them, and that would apply even in that first example where the bus has only just stopped.

Essentially, if there is anyone who would benefit from a signal, then give one. But still be careful, because a signal doesn’t give you any special privileges.

Should I just signal anyway to be on the safe side?

It depends. If you mean just blindly signal so you don’t have to check the road properly, then it is just a cop-out, and one which could get you in serious trouble if you miss something important. On your driving test, examiners are quite relaxed about unnecessary signals, but they will nail you to the wall if you miss a mirror or blind spot check, or if your signal is confusing.

If you have checked, and still signal even if you really don’t need to, then that’s not so important unless it is confusing to other road users.

What if the test in question is my ADI Part 2 test?

Signalling unnecessarily can be marked as a fault on the Part 2 test. You certainly want to be doing it properly when moving off and pulling over, but trying to be clever at junctions by not signalling might backfire.

As far as turning left or right at junctions is concerned on your Part 2, if you have one of these magical open junctions on your test routes you need to get advice from your trainer and/or the examiner(s) who take ADI tests in your area to find out what is expected. The examiners would be more than happy to advise you.

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