Do I need to use an indicator or signal?

Firstly, let's look at what the Highway Code says about signalling:

Rule 103

Signals warn and inform other road users, including pedestrians (see Signals to other road users), of your intended actions. You should always

  • give clear signals in plenty of time, having checked it is not misleading to signal at that time
  • use them to advise other road users before changing course or direction, stopping or moving off
  • cancel them after use
  • make sure your signals will not confuse others. If, for instance, you want to stop after a side road, do not signal until you are passing the road. If you signal earlier it may give the impression that you intend to turn into the road. Your brake lights will warn traffic behind you that you are slowing down
  • use an arm signal to emphasise or reinforce your signal if necessary. Remember that signalling does not give you priority.

Rule 104

You should also

  • watch out for signals given by other road users and proceed only when you are satisfied that it is safe
  • be aware that an indicator on another vehicle may not have been cancelled.


Having read what the Highway Code says, the question of when and why we signal still perplexes even the most experienced drivers, who’ve often forgotten everything they were taught about signalling long ago. Let’s now look at the reason we signal, and why. Signalling:

  • Makes things easier for other road users
  • Is courteous
  • Is a matter of safety
  • Is a way of communicating a driver’s intention to others

As driving instructors, we teach trainees to ask themselves two simple questions to help them decide under most circumstances whether or not to signal:

  1. Will anyone benefit from my signal?
  2. Will my signal cause confusion or mislead anyone?

Depending on the answers to these questions, the decision can then be made, bearing in mind that often a confusing signal is worse than none at all.


Typical signalling scenarios where drivers are unsure

Moving off from a parked position at the side of the road

A driver wishing to move off from the side of the road will want to carry out a 360-degree check of their surroundings. The result of those effective observations will determine whether a signal is required. This is based on the answer to question of ‘will anyone benefit?’ If it’s safe to move off, the driver should do so, and should use a signal if there is anyone there who could benefit from the signal. This applies even if it is a road user such as a cyclist, or even a pedestrian.

If any confusion could arise from a signal however – e.g., if the signal is early and a vehicle was approaching from behind, the signal should be delayed until the vehicle has passed. To not do so may cause that vehicle’s driver to take evasive action.

There is a circumstance where an early indication could be deemed acceptable. This is when trying to move off into a stream of slow-moving traffic, and the signal is used as a request. The traffic would have to be moving slowly enough however, not to feel endangered by the signal. Some drivers using an indicator for this purpose, might reinforce it with a hand-signal, which can be an effective way of drawing attention, even in modern times.

Passing parked vehicles or obstacles such as skips

Whilst this may have been taught in the past, and often drivers who learned to drive decades ago do this as a matter of course, nowadays there is usually no necessity to indicate when passing perked vehicles. The revised thinking is that most drivers behind can also see the obstacle, and a signal may cause confusion as some drivers could believe the vehicle is intending to turn right soon. An exception of course is a large vehicle such as a bus or lorry. These often signal to go round obstacles, as following vehicles have no way of knowing that they are otherwise about to move to their right.

An exception, where it could be deemed acceptable for a smaller vehicle to signal right to pass an obstacle is where there is a steady, relentless stream of oncoming traffic. The signal is then being used as a request for that stream to concede priority. It also displays intent to following vehicles, and may prevent an impatient following driver barging past and trying to force their way onward, thinking the lead vehicle is not going to ever move.

Changing lanes and overtaking

As driver trainers, we teach that a right indicator should almost always be used when overtaking a moving vehicle, regardless of the type of road, be it motorway, dual carriageway or single carriageway. On a dual carriageway or motorway, moving back into the lane to the left does not always require a signal. Again, it comes down to the question of benefit. If there is a vehicle close enough behind or in front in the lane being entered, and they will likely benefit from a signal, one should be used. If not, there is no need.

Confusion too must be considered. On a road with off-slip roads, a left signal back in may look like an exit signal. Staying in-lane until after the off-slip may be safer than giving a confusing signal in that situation.


Cyclists and slower vulnerable road users

A driver should give themselves enough time to properly assess the situation regarding overtaking any vehicle, but vulnerable road users in particular. The width of the road is a major consideration in this situation. If a signal is made, the question should be asked as to whether it will confuse or benefit oncoming traffic and following traffic.


Moving in to stop at the side of the road

Mirrors Signal Manoeuvre. The simple MSM mantra taught for generations by driving instructors and, surprisingly, remembered by many drivers for years afterwards. This applies to moving in to stop. That said, the Benefit/Confusion questions need to be asked first. If there are people present to benefit from a signal, then a signal should be made. If not, no signal is needed. Confusion could be caused by a junction between the vehicle and the intended place of stopping, as too if the vehicle takes too long to stop. Any signal should be applied in a timely fashion after the stopping place has been identified, and confusing junctions passed.



Before signalling, a driver should ask:

  1. Will anyone benefit from my signal?
  2. Will my signal cause confusion or mislead anyone?

A well-informed decision should result from the answers to those questions. If in doubt, if there is anyone around who just MAY BENEFIT, a well-timed signal should be made, so long as it’s not confusing.


See Highway Code:


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