How To Understand Motorist Signals and Gestures

02.23.2011 | 7:12 am

A “Hey Check Out the New Banner Photo” Note from Fatty: Jo Ann from Western NY sent in the new banner shot, which was taken by Ron George. Thanks for sending that photo in, Jo Ann!

I’ll be changing the header photo on an irregular basis now. Any time you have a photo you think belongs in the header, email it to me, with the subject “Header Photo.” Thanks!

You are a cyclist, and so, naturally, you are sometimes frightened by the multi-ton vehicles — I call them “cars” and “trucks” — with which you must share the roads. And you should not be ashamed of your fear or confusion. After all, did you know that if you have a collision with one of these cars and / or trucks, the odds are you’ll sustain as much damage as the other vehicle?

Or quite possibly more!

Well, it’s true. And did you know that many — if not most — of these cars and trucks are, roughly speaking, ten gazillion times faster and heavier than you?

Well, that’s true too!

And — just one more little fact here — were you aware that, due to the inequity in size and speed between cars / trucks and bicyclists, there is a often a perceived animosity between these two categories of vehicles?

Yes, true again!

Of course, you’re no simpleton. No fool. You weren’t born yesterday, or probably even during a year that began with “2.” So you may well have already been aware of the above tidbits of information.

But here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know: practically every single one of those cars and trucks actually has a human occupant inside — a living, breathing, human being. A regular person, very much like you or me — except for you and I are getting exercise and enjoying the outdoors, while the person in a car is breathing recycled air, is paying huge amounts of money for the nonreplenishable fuel propelling them, and accelerates / decelerates by barely moving their toes.

But otherwise: yep, people just you and me! I know. Take a moment to let that sink in.

OK, now that you’ve wrapped your mind around the fact that those cars (and trucks!) are filled with people (yes, people!), ask yourself: is it really possible that those people (!!!) — folks just like you and me — could really be so angry at us just because we have more fun getting from place to place than they do?

Of course not! That question was rhetorical, silly!

The truth is, the animosity and aggression and downright evilness you sense from certain car pilots is nothing more than a misunderstanding. Once you get to better understand the intentions behind the automotive pilot’s actions, you’re going to feel much, much better about sharing the road with them.

I’ll give you some examples.


What happens: A car honks at you as it goes by, startling you and very nearly (or actually) making you crash.

What you think it means: “That jerk thinks it’s funny to make me swerve and crash!”

What it really means: The pilot of the automobile is struggling with feelings of insecurity, and has been for quite some time. Upon seeing you, these feelings have resurfaced, triggered by jealousy at your confidence, your athleticism, and your dashing lycra outfit.

Naturally, the car pilot’s first instinct was to pull over to the side of the road and weep at their own inadequacy and envy. Fighting down these ugly thoughts, the driver has instead chosen the high road: to instead give you a friendly greeting.

Unfortunately, this inner struggle took a little while to resolve itself. As a result, the person in the car didn’t honk until they were right beside you. Hence inadvertently startling and (hopefully nearly) injuring you.

Still, it’s the thought that counts.


What happens: A car swerves very close to you.

What you think it means: “That joker is either not paying attention to the fact that I am here on the road too, or thinks it would be funny to run me off the road!”

What it really means: The automotive pilot (sometimes called a “driver”) wants you to know that because they take your safety very seriously, they want you to know they’re in total control of the vehicle they’re operating. Hence, they are engaging in highly complex and sophisticated maneuvers designed to demonstrate the high level of skill they have with their automotive contrivance.

They’re showing you that their control over their car is so complete, so total, that they can execute what would otherwise be a foolhardy and potentially murderous action with total confidence. And that, therefore, you should feel totally safe, because the person behind the wheel (car drivers control their bikes with wheels, strangely) is not just a good driver, but an expert driver.

Kind of like the way the Blue Angels fly really close together, in tight formation. “Hey,” you should think to yourself, “If the driver can come within a hair’s breadth of killing me and still be smiling, this must be a rare driver indeed, and one in which I can put my complete trust!”

Isn’t that nice to know?


What happens: The driver throws a beer bottle at you as they go by.

What you think it means: “That driver has just assaulted me with a deadly weapon. I’m pretty sure that’s a felony!”

What it really means: “Hey, you look really thirsty, and it just occurred to me that drinking while driving is dangerous, illegal, and stupid! Here, please take this beer, both to help me save me from myself, and because I suspect you might like some refreshment!”


What happens: The car driver makes a one-fingered gesture as they go by.

What you think it means: “This person, who has never met me before, has just insulted me for no good reason!”

What it really means: Did you know that in some remote cultures you have never heard of before, raising a single finger to the sky is regarded as a brief-but-earnest prayer, imploring mother nature to give those in the area good luck and excellent weather conditions for cycling?

It’s true!

So when a driver does this, consider it a thoughtful — and frankly, touching — beseeching of the higher powers on your behalf.

And please remember, in the cultures where such a gesture is considered a prayer, it is also considered rude for the beneficiary of that prayer to abstain from giving a similar prayer on the original supplicant’s behalf.

And you wouldn’t want to be rude, would you?

PS: Hey, I’ve started actually using my Twitter account. It’s a not-half-bad way to find out when I post something new. It’s also a not-half-bad way to find out what else I’m thinking about during the day. You know, stuff that sometimes makes it into the blog eventually, and stuff that doesn’t. Further, I promise not to tweet stuff about where I am or what I’ve just eaten. Unless I’m either at or have just eaten something very interesting. So: Follow me.


  1. Comment by Microchip | 02.23.2011 | 7:31 am

    Woo-hoo, first to comment! :-D

  2. Comment by Microchip | 02.23.2011 | 7:40 am

    Fatty, I voted for you. Nice post, although I haven’t personally experienced them. Wow, there are some fierce bike-haters in that part of the world. Not that they love cyclists here, but the most I’ve encountered (so far) is impatience.

  3. Comment by Theresa | 02.23.2011 | 7:51 am

    What about the guy who pulls over and gets out of his car and starts screaming at you? And then shoves you? Maybe he was trying to warn us of a road hazard up ahead, was concerned about our safety, and just got a little dramatic?

    And here’s a good swerving story: We were on a group bike ride at lunchtime at work, maybe 10 of us in the group including the Director of Engineering. We were headed down the hill from the building, and some folks were two abreast but the road is only used to access our building (not a main road). A COLLEAGUE of ours leaving work for lunch was headed down the hill, and was bothered that some of us were riding side by side. She didn’t really swerve towards us, but didn’t yield any of the lane even though there were no oncoming cars. She did this to her co-workers. She hit my buddy Tom, you know, because those 10 seconds she would have lost waiting for us to get down the hill would have been a huge inconvenience. But maybe she was hypoglycemic, and really needed to get lunch as fast as possible for her health.

  4. Comment by theCanary | 02.23.2011 | 8:08 am

    “it is also considered rude for the beneficiary of that prayer to abstain from giving a similar prayer on the original supplicant’s behalf.”

    That right there turned the amp to 11.

  5. Comment by Microchip | 02.23.2011 | 9:19 am

    Oohh, I was too late to vote…thought I’d done it.

  6. Comment by Squirrelhead | 02.23.2011 | 9:28 am

    I had my vote for you in already. Today’s post cracked me up! I will be sure to return all prayers said for me while I am out there on the bike. I have always suspected that the honking car was just cheering me on. The poor insecure…..what was that word….driver?

    Side note: Those going to Davis CA. Are you staying in Davis or Sacramento?

  7. Comment by MattC | 02.23.2011 | 9:45 am

    Ahhhh…yes. I see it all much clearer now…thanks Fatty! And so, the dreaded “Right Hook” manuever (when a ‘driver’ of a steel death-machine zooms by you and then immediatly slams on their brakes and turns right DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF YOU) is in actuality said ‘driver’, after getting a close look at the fun-loving athletic lycra-enhanced cyclist and the chosen model of 2-wheeled mobility, decides to make eye-contact with you and let you know how awesome you did indeed look, and to show off his choice of mobility in close detail. Thus while you the cyclist are slamming on your brakes so-as not to crash into the side of the oh-so-awesome ‘death-machine’, you get a real good look at the vehicle, and hopefully make eye contact so you both know how awesome each-others vehicle choise is. And sometimes if you’re lucky, you will even get a 1-fingered prayer thrown your way as a bonus! Ahhh…to have that up-close and person viewing of the color-choice and model (typically an SUV for some reason) really sets the tone for a great ride! I know I will forever more be more attuned to the ‘real’ intentions of the death-machine pilots motives.

    And Squirrelhead…my brother and I are staying at the Hyatt in Davis…as is my ’sista in cycling’ Angie (she picked it and we just followed suit). Go thru the LiveStrong Davis page to pick your hotel and make your reservations, and there is a few bucks donated to LIVESTRONG. And you get a better rate than any of the hotel sites (I checked Orbitz, Travelocity and Make sure you get into town on Friday if at all possible…we are still working on the details of our private tour for Team Fatty of the Bicycling Hall of Fame on Friday eve.

  8. Comment by Jenn | 02.23.2011 | 9:53 am

    Um…was this more scary than funny, or is it just me? I hate to say it, but this makes me glad I’m not Stateside.

  9. Comment by Rob M | 02.23.2011 | 10:13 am

    Fatty, please explain why an oncoming driver in the far lane will incoherently yell out the window, as loud as he can, as he drives by, without any concept of the laws of physics, as it relates to sound, and the dopler effect.

    Could it be that he’s just a nut?

  10. Comment by Lucien Brady Price | 02.23.2011 | 10:16 am

    On any other day I think I would have just laughed at this article, but not today! Last night during a group ride some ass passed our group in a hurry, then turned into an apartment complex without notice (or blinker) and almost completely side swiped my group leader. With that said, I am not in the joking mood today.

    Maybe I will re-read the post tomorrow.

    Good call. Today, this post may be more your style. – FC

  11. Comment by Philly Jen | 02.23.2011 | 10:27 am

    Hand gesture by cyclist with middle finger upraised = Philly Turn Signal

  12. Comment by Serre M | 02.23.2011 | 10:38 am

    Priceless, Fatty. One of your best posts. Thanks.

  13. Comment by roan | 02.23.2011 | 10:51 am

    Hummm…I’ve been “doored”, hit by cars 4 times(only the last one caused injury to me), had glass beer bottle & 2 plastic bottles thrown at me, been forced into a ditch by driver going the opposite direction at 5AM horn blowing bright lights on and outside the fog line on my side of the road, and shot at in the dark by driver with a gun, he missed but not by much as the bullet hit a fence just ahead of me.Even had one driver accuse me of causing him to pull out in front of another driver because he didn’t want to wait for me to pass by him.
    Will I stop riding…not until they pry my feet from the clip-ins. My age 62 hoping for 63.

  14. Comment by c_fiddy | 02.23.2011 | 10:57 am

    “The pilot of the automobile is struggling with feelings of insecurity, and has been for quite some time. Upon seeing you, these feelings have resurfaced, triggered by jealousy at your confidence, your athleticism, and your dashing lycra outfit.”

    Thanks Fatty, I think Freud named the condition you are describing as Lycra Envy.
    And I usually return “prayers” with the gesture of a kind wave whilst sitting up to adjust my reproductive organs, tho show that I received their prayer and offer one of future virility on their behalf.

    Thanks for jumping back into twitter!

  15. Comment by Fifth Column | 02.23.2011 | 10:59 am

    Excellent post coming off the fact that, on my way to work, I had to push off two different cars that turned into oncoming traffic without checking today. One of them offered an apology via the hand-blessing of good weather!

  16. Comment by Doug (Way upstate NY) | 02.23.2011 | 11:12 am

    This post makes me long for the weather to warm, the snow to melt, and to get back out on the road……

    Personally one of my favorites is the car passing me on a 2 lane road with a car coming the other direction. How much time will you loose by slowing down and waiting to fly past me until the oncoming lane is clear?

  17. Comment by oheckler | 02.23.2011 | 11:38 am

    I was out for a ride yesterday, here in sunny, beautiful NorCal when some yahoo in a pickup truck stuck his head out of the passenger side window and screamed “C#nt Face!” at me. Now this is a direct quote, I’m not paraphrasing at all.

    I’m sure it was just his way of trying to praise my prowess with the ladies.

  18. Comment by BamaJim | 02.23.2011 | 11:39 am

    Thanks for clearing this up. Similarly, I’ve assumed the driver that pulled up next to me to yell about my total irresponsibility for being on the road was just concerned for my safety.

  19. Comment by Alf | 02.23.2011 | 12:44 pm

    This is very similar, albeit less vulgar, than this post from another bike blog:

  20. Comment by Lulea | 02.23.2011 | 2:17 pm

    Next time include the translation for the situation where a car drives up next to you real close, has his girlfriend/wife roll down the window on the passenger side and proceeds to shout/lecture at you while driving. This has happened more than once and the girlfriend/wife always looks mortified.

  21. Comment by Linda TP | 02.23.2011 | 2:34 pm

    this makes so much more sense to me now! so perhaps when the lady rolled her window down and proceeded to scream expletives at me while ever so slowly following me up a hill, really was just encouraging me. Maybe she thought I was trianing for the marines or something.

  22. Comment by Annette | 02.23.2011 | 3:28 pm

    Classic Fatty! Bravo!

  23. Comment by KanyonKris | 02.23.2011 | 3:38 pm

    While you’ve certainly covered the top 4, my favorite is diesel pickups that romp on the throttle to create a cloud of black smoke right as their exhaust pipe is in line with me. Did you know that PM10 is actually GOOD for your lungs?

  24. Comment by aussie kev | 02.23.2011 | 3:52 pm

    i dont now when you wrote the article but i still tap my helmet to show my displeasure when a cars goes past to close for comfort but no close enough to warrant the “finger”

  25. Comment by bikemike | 02.23.2011 | 4:00 pm

    so let me get this straight. what you’re saying is i should NOT have stopped and thrown my litespeed ghisallo at the truck, that the “pilot” of, threw his big gulp at me, because i was thirsty and didn’t even know it? well, aren’t we just a little late this piece of etiquette info.

  26. Comment by Born 4Lycra | 02.23.2011 | 8:55 pm

    So it’s the same the world over.
    Still recovering from a broken collarbone and three cracked ribs from a truck that just turned left in front of me (downunder we are on the other side of the road) having just that second passed me. The driver insisted it was not his fault as he had not seen me and was also pretty certain he had not hit me with his truck. I politely agreed and pointed to the blood on his trailer (which I was confident would match the blood currently coming from a large gash on my hip) as I thanked him for his concern.

  27. Comment by Born 4Lycra | 02.23.2011 | 8:57 pm

    I should have added that the same guy now waves (genuine wave no finger etc) when he sees me in the morning heading to work.

  28. Comment by Xplora | 02.23.2011 | 9:17 pm

    I thought the sight of my attractive physique was causing latent homosexual urges, and they were struggling to resolve them so much that they lost control of their vehicle as they passed me?

  29. Comment by Gordon In Melbourne | 02.23.2011 | 9:20 pm

    Good to see things are the same in the States as Australia. If it wasn’t so true I’d laugh.

    I am aware of a story of cyclists revenge. Please note I don’t condone violence but …. well here we go.

    Group ride, car swerves in order to impress female passenger, speeds away. Driver not quite awake to the fact that group on bikes can go fast, next set of lights largest rider from group reaches through the car window (silly enough not to close), un-hooks seat belt, extracts driver from car through window, is polite to female and apologises in advance but states he will not hurt her, and proceeds to place his fist in a number of places on drivers body, finally suggests he think about his actions, group rides off.

    Probably no winners out of this but a little poetic justice ??????

  30. Comment by andrew | 02.24.2011 | 8:33 am

    when gas passes $4, get an american flag and ride around local gas stations

  31. Comment by Mark | 02.24.2011 | 10:31 am

    While just as pissed off as anyone else, I tend to take a deep breath, hold my line, and maybe just wave. I don’t know if the driver of that killing machine will turn around for another pass or has other weapons of mayhem inside that he may just pull out if I get too demonstrative with my prayers. Calming my Irish-blood wife in the same situations is the real challenge!

  32. Comment by Sansauto | 02.24.2011 | 11:32 am

    Two points.

    1) I miss the 60-something ladies that would flip me off in Utah County. In a place where almost everyone is Mormon, it always made me wonder.

    2) You completely missed what drivers who shoot at you with shotguns really mean. Oh yes, riding along with a group in Utah County, we got peppered in the butt with bird shot. While his intentions may have been good, it seemed to me that he just might not like me. for the simple reason that I was on a bike.

  33. Comment by GJ Jackie | 02.24.2011 | 11:37 am

    At least on a mountain bike trail, my life is in my own hands. I still love road riding, but now I find myself happier on the trails and away from the oblivious, texting, eating, reading, putting on make-up drivers out there.

  34. Comment by Frank | 02.24.2011 | 12:41 pm

    You also forgot to mention the meyhem we riders cause to the “drivers”. I ride a recumbent and I know that my superior riding machine caused so much distraction to 2 “drivers” that they decided to rapidly decelerate into each other so they could discuss my method of transportation!

  35. Comment by Jeff | 02.24.2011 | 1:55 pm

    Smile and wave, boys… just smile and wave.

    My approach is to kill ‘em with kindness, giving the finger just reinforces their behavior. You’ve got to break the cycle somehow.

  36. Comment by Dan | 02.24.2011 | 4:14 pm

    Situation Four: They could be stating you are #1 in their life…

  37. Comment by Jim | 02.25.2011 | 11:38 am

    Reference situation one: car honking at you as they pass. I used to think the same way you’ve noted above, until I began studying for my North Carolina driver’s licence test after we moved here in June 09. Much to my surprise, I learned that in keeping with universally acknowledged Southern hospitality the NC traffic law states “If it is safe to pass, signal to alert the vehicle ahead and behind you of your intention so they can plan their moves accordingly. Give a left-turn signal so the driver behind you will know that you are about to pull out and pass. BLOW THE HORN (emphasis added) to signal the vehicle ahead. The horn signal places the driver of the vehicle you are passing under a legal obligation to help you pass. The law requires at least two feet of clearance between your vehicle and the vehicle or bicycle you are passing.”
    How about that? I now believe/know that every horn blow is really the result of a driver in willing compliance with the law of our great state. I therefore now acknowledge all these fellow law abiding road travelers with a friendly hand wave of thanks for their courtesy and to help them safely pass too! I also secretly pray they don’t hit me!! :-)

  38. Comment by rjb | 02.27.2011 | 3:06 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed one group ride when a pickup truck hauling a couple of large (500 gal??) water tanks on a trailer decided to rapidly accelerate, squealing his tires just to make sure he got out of our way as fast as possible. Unfortunately, his rapid acceleration caused the two (fortunately empty) containers to fall off the trailer and slide harmlessly across the road and into the woods. We were very pleased that the driver exhibited that kind of control to be able to deposit said containers on the opposite side of the road, and thus not “bowling” us over (quite apt analogy). We stopped and gasped in amazement, chatted about the kind display amongst ourselves for a few seconds, and then decided that perhaps we should take the next turn just in case the friendly driver wished to return and explain to us just how nice he was to get out of our way so fast. While we would have appreciated the gesture, we were indeed very selfish and did not wish to delay our ride with idle chit-chat. I know, how rude of us.

    Truly a kind act. We salute you, water tank-carrying pickup-truck driver!

  39. Pingback by Motorist to Cyclist Talk – What those Signals Really Mean | Aushiker: Bicycling & Hiking in Western Australia | 03.1.2011 | 10:06 am

    [...] To learn more about those signals and motorist to cyclist communication, click through to the Fat Cyclist. [...]

  40. Pingback by Motorist to Cyclist Talk – What those Signals Really Mean | Aushiker: Bicycling & Hiking in Western Australia | 03.1.2011 | 10:06 am

    [...] To learn more about those signals and motorist to cyclist communication, click through to the Fat Cyclist. [...]

  41. Comment by Greg | 03.9.2011 | 12:07 pm

    Genius, Fatty, Pure genius!


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