How To Indicate

This post is about the apparently mysterious art of indicating (that's "using your blinkers" for any Americans reading this) when driving on New Zealand roads (although this is likely to be relevant in most places people drive, obviously making suitable substitutions for left and right).  After the nipple, the indicator - featured in all motorised vehicles warranted for road use in NZ - is perhaps the most intuitive interface ever devised. According to the New Zealand Road Code road users are required to indicate their intentions with their vehicle's indicator lights which they must maintain in good working order (tested periodically when you get a WOF (Warrant Of Fitness) in NZ).

Despite this law, my observation of road users over the past 20 or so years is that few display any competence in their indicating. Because I assume that not all of them are callous anti-social individuals, this suggests that they simply fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of indicating.  Depressingly many consider indicating altogether unnecessary. They prefer to be enigmatic and a complete menace to everyone else on the road.

As road users, we implicitly accept our responsibility to uphold the road user's "social contract" - that we will behave well and predictably on the road, be considerate to other road users, and adhere to the rules (even if we don't fully understand them). I'd like to do my part to change the culture on our roads from one of misplaced entitlement to a conscious sense of privilege and responsibility. I've lived in places prior to NZ where this was apparent, so I know it's possible. 

I'm not a qualified driving instructor, but I've been (not so) quietly observing traffic whilst walking, driving and cycling in NZ (and elsewhere in the world) over the past 20 or so year, and I've had a few thoughts on the subject I'd like to share.

The Purpose of Indicating

The purpose of indicating is to let others in the vicinity - other motorists, cyclists, skateboarders, pedestrians, utility scooter rides, etc. - know what it is we plan to do. Not what we've done, not what we're doing: what we plan to do.

In my opinion, the Road Code is woefully terse on the subject of indicating (thus this article), but I note that no where in the Road Code section on indicating does the word "optional" appear. Not once (I've searched it). Indicating is not a discretionary act. I've often been told by people whose lack of indication I found problematic that "there was no one there, so I didn't bother!" Then they were not being very observant. More than anyone else, you indicate for the road users you didn't see. It at least gives them a fighting chance to stay out of your way.

Situations Requiring Indication

Most road users in whose cars/vans/trucks I've been a passenger - good people, all - are nonetheless guilty of this: not indicating in the right situations. They fail to indicate left turns, or when leaving the side of the road, or (cardinal sin) when pulling a quick "youee".

The general principle is this: if you are entering or leaving a lane of traffic (either real, with lane strips painted on the road, or implicit) you must indicate your intentions.

Some specific examples where indicating is required:

  • before leaving the curb,
  • before changing lanes, even "implied lanes" like the implicit (not explicitly marked with white or yellow lines) left turn lane on many single carriageway roads when they widen at intersections,
  • before every frickin' time you turn left,
  • when leaving a driveway,
  • when driving in a car park (even when lanes are unmarked, they are implied), and
  • before pulling off the main carriageway onto the verge to stop before, for example, you answer your phone (because you don't use it while you're driving, right? Because that would be illegal).

The Rhythm of Indicating

Good driving is about achieving a smooth rhythm. One of the biggest failures in indicating I see - and it's absolutely epidmic - is people "going through the motions" and having no sense of cadence. They pull up to an intersection in the right lane (where they could either turn right or straight) and, well after stopping for the red light, they then decide to put on their indicator to turn right. It's like they, long after deciding that they were going to turn right, remembered "oh yeah, I'm supposed to let the rest of the world know".  Wrong wrong wrong.

Another bad one is drifting from the main carriage way of a two lane road into the left lane to make a left turn, and indicating just before coming to a stop at the intersection rather than prior to leaving the main carriage way into the left turn lane.

One of the worst things one can do when driving is to start braking before indicating a turn. It's very disconcerting for any following motorists (and any nearby cyclists) as it is either interpreted as a sign of unseen trouble ahead, or an erratic, unpredictable (and therefore unsafe) driver. Don't be that driver.

Indicating is a rhythm, a bit like dancing. If you do it enough, you develop muscle memory, and the timing comes naturally. Most people never bother and do that awkward two foot shuffle. Trust me, it's worth the time invested.

For indicating, this is the order of operations:

  • drive along
  • spot the place where I want to turn, say, left up ahead...
  • about three counts away from leaving the carriageway I'm in, I indicate the left turn,
  • I then (after checking over my shoulder for cyclists) start to pull into the left turning lane (or to the left side of the main lane, carefully staying clear of any painted cycle lane),
  • then I start braking (indicator going the whole time),
  • then I check for pedestrians crossing, and
  • turn in to the closest lane on the new road, at a suitable speed ensuring I don't swing wide into any other lanes.

Nice and easy, everyone knew what I was planning before I ever left the lane I was in, and before I touched my brakes.

When driving on a multi-lane road in heavy traffic, often people wanting to change lanes hover over their indicator switch until they see a break in the traffic in the lane they want to go to and only then do they indicate and move over the lane line.

That approach is fine, but also misses the "intend to go" point I made above - you can indicate to other traffic what you want to do too. So in the above situation, indiicate as soon as you want to shift over, then, some considerate soul in the next lane is more likely to make room for you.

Pilots Develop Virtuous Habits

Not many people know that I trained to be a glider pilot shortly after arriving in NZ (staying current was more expensive than fun, so I let it lapse). One of the most lasting and valuable lessons of my pilot training is that pilots recognise the value of habits. Yes, there is such thing as a good habit.

From day one of training, pilots are trained to form good habits. We learn pre-flight checks, we use checklists with memorable acronyms that ensure we don't accidentally skip a key step in the heat of the moment that might cost us (or our passengers, or people on the ground) our lives. The road is certainly more 2-dimensional, but that shouldn't lull you into an unjustified sense of confidence. Some good driving habits can include:

  1. Always fastening your seatbelt before you put the car into gear.
  2. Never move before all your passengers are belted in.
  3. Always check your mirrors before moving.
  4. Always check your mirror before opening your door.
  5. Indicate every turn or change to-from main carriageway according to your rhythm.

Better Too Much than Too Little

Some people are really concerned about indicating too soon, and perhaps misleading people into thinking that they're planning to turn into a driveway or something prior to the next obvious turn. Remember that your indicators are only one part of the indicating process. Your obvious speed (and brake lights) are the other. Indicate even if it's likely to create some ambiguity.

Where the need to indicate is ambiguous, indicate just to be sure.  For example: when you're on a road that has one or two lanes which turn right onto another road and have no straight-ahead option, you can still indicate right. The only ambiguity you might create is if you're in the left of two turning lanes, and in most cases, the lane lines are painted a solid which (which, for the record, means "don't change lanes here").

The Many Faces of Indicating

Warranted motor vehicles must all have indicators to be road-legal, but what about cyclists and skateboarders and other less conventional road transport (does anybody still drive a Segway®)? We (I say we, because I'm a daily cycle commuter) must also indicate. The same rules I've suggested above still apply, although there're a couple minor twists, especially for cyclists, where indicating means taking a hand off the handlebars:

  1. be safe - please indicate, but not if doing so is going to make you lose stability
  2. the official left turn signal (which was designed for use by motorists in vehicles without indicator lights - see this illustration, noting it's the right turn for countries which drive on the right side of the road - is to use the right arm cocked so that the hand is held up. Most most motorists are unaware of this arcane signal, so it's probably much safer to simply indicate left turns with the left arm. Unfortunately, doing so means you can't use your back brakes at the same time, so indicate quickly!
  3. because bikes can (or do) go lots of places that cars don't, be sure to continue indicating for the benefit of pedestrians, etc.
  4. make sure you have a bell, too, to alert pedestrians and slower bikes that you're coming.


Right - there's my first cut at this. My motivations are

  • to vent my spleen in the face of epidemic indicatory incompetence on our roads, and
  • to have a place to point people who seem open to improving their skills (or just want to validate what they're doing... or who just want to give me a hard time for being obsessive).

I'd also like to note that this post is my attempt to offer a "carrot".  While I generally value the "she'll be right" mentality of NZ, the lack of caring for the road rules by kiwi drivers, and the non-existent enforcement by the police is a major disappointment for me. I think there needs to be a whole lot more stick.

Let me know or comment below if you think I've got anything wrong or am missing something. And yes, I know I should have some graphics, but I've run out of steam. Maybe later.

Update 2014-05-16: found this excellent indicating resource online, specially designed to cater for my north American audience.