After driving for years prior to owning a motorcycle I always noticed that motorcycle riders would drop their left hand down and signal with two fingers to the oncoming motorcycle. Why were they signalling to each other? What does it mean? After doing a bit of research online I found the reason why motorcycle riders wave to one another.

Motorcycle riding is a community, not just a hobby. Riders use this wave as a signal to acknowledge each other on the road. Although the most common is the low wave, there are many different types of waves that have different meanings. Let’s take a look below at the meaning of the waves and when you should use them.

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Who started the motorcycle wave?

The actual history of the wave is a mystery, but there are a few theories that people have passed on that seem to make sense. The first is the story of the motorcycle wave being done by Arthur Davidson and William Harley, from the esteemed motorcycle company of Harley-Davidson, who rode with each other and gave a small wave as they passed one another in the street. 

Most people who saw this happen believed that they were doing it as a courtesy to other riders and become known as a symbol of good etiquette among motorcyclists. This story dates back to 1904, when the two men first rode together and, unknowingly, created the universal symbol for the respect of other riders.

The second main theory is that this was meant as a salute to veterans during the ’60s as a sign of respect for their service. It was said that it was a way to establish victory over the Germans, but also a way to show respect for those who served their country in a small, yet significant way. This was also seen as a sign of respect between riders, as this is not done by those driving automobiles.

What does the wave mean?

As mentioned before, the origin of the first wave is not historically known. However, the meaning behind it is fairly well known. The initial meaning may not be completely clear, but nowadays, the biker’s wave is known as a sign of respect for other riders. This is seen as a way to acknowledge your fellow riders on the road and let them know that someone else is looking out for them. 

In these days of crowded freeways and fast-paced living where people often don’t pay much attention to the road, it has also transformed into a way of saying that the other rider knows the dangers that you are facing. With the number of motorcycle accidents going up due to distracted drivers on the road, issues with safety among riders have become more important. So, this biker’s wave has also become a symbol for watching out for other riders on the road. 

What does the motorcycle wave look like?

Now, you might be wondering what this motorcycle wave looks like, well the truth is that there isn’t just one way to do it. However, waving like you want to get attention from your high school teacher isn’t the right way. The typical way to wave is to simply raise your arm so that it is slightly lifted from the ground and give a quick wave as you pass, without looking at the other driver. However, there are a few different variations that are acceptable alternatives.

What are the different types of motorcycle waves?

The first option is the one mentioned above, which is just a low, slow raise of the left hand as you pass another rider. This can be done by throwing up a peace sign, point with one finger, or by leaving your hand out like you are giving a full wave with all of your fingers spread out. Either way, you should make sure to use your peripheral vision and not look at the other rider. That is just wrong. 

The second, which doesn’t happen as often, is the right-handed wave. This doesn’t happen as often, but it’s simply because you typically pass other riders in the other direction, which will cause you to use your left hand. So, there is no big meaning behind the right or left hand, as long as it’s a wave. 

The third is the peace sign. This is done by extending your arm towards the road at a 45-degree angle and pointing the peace sign to the road. This wave is used mostly for those who ride on Harley Davidson motorcycles and if you are not riding a Harley, you may or may not get a wave back. 

The final version of the motorcycle wave is the head nod. This can be soon slowly taking over for the wave and is simply a small nod that you give other riders, which may or may not come with the rider turning their head to look at you. Many riders will likely not turn their head, simply because it is more difficult to do, and more traditional riders will not appreciate it – as most times, the wave is done without looking at the other rider – so don’t get offended if the rider doesn’t nod back. 

When should you wave?

There are a number of times when you shouldn’t do the motorcycle wave, like when you need to use the controls and can’t afford to take your hand away from its job, but when are you supposed to do it? 

Well, although there are many times that you might not be able to, there are some times when you should wave. So, here are the times that you should do the motorcycle wave when you see other riders. 

The first is when you are passing them, this is out of respect for them, and just like when you’re driving, no one likes to be passed by a jerk. However, passing someone to acknowledge that you see them is a good time. 

The second and very important part is only when you are able to. You don’t want to be popping a wheelie and then try to take your hand off the throttle to throw your fellow rider a peace sign. So, make sure that you are riding comfortably and are in a position to maintain control of your bike as you do it.

The third and another important one is when you are on a straight path. You don’t want to pull into a curvy road and try to take your hands off the controls, which could cause you to crash, so you want to make sure that you are on a road that allows you to maintain control of the bike as you wave.

Tips on how to wave

For those who haven’t been riding long, or just haven’t encountered many riders while they have been riding, you might want to learn some pointers about how to wave to other riders. This will keep you from looking like a newbie and stop you from embarrassing yourself.

The first tip is to make sure that you are not overly enthusiastic about your wave. No traditional rider wants to see a young rider waving at him like it is his or her first day of school, that is just embarrassing, so make sure that you keep your arm below the handles so that you don’t look like you are overdoing it.

The second is to make sure that you are in a position to do so. If you are coming around a corner, especially as a new rider, you don’t want to attempt a wave only to fall on your face into the brush on the side of the road. So, make sure that you are in the right place to wave, and that you can do so safely. 

The third tip is not to bother with waving at night. First off, they won’t see you. Secondly, they will likely not wave back if they do because they will think that you won’t be able to see them wave anyway. So, if it is too dark outside, don’t bother. 

The fourth is to not try too hard with it. This is something that seems like it comes with a lot of rules, and new riders might get confused and not know when they’re doing it right. But the wave is a sign of respect. If you are showing respect to another rider – even if you are doing it wrong – most things can be easily forgiven. 

So, don’t take it too seriously and just know that you will learn the tricks of the trade as you become a more avid rider. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and whether or not the story of the Harley-Davidson wave being made that day was actually true, the motorcycle wave didn’t catch on in a day. 

So, take your time, learn how to ride, and get comfortable being a motorcycle rider before freaking out about if you are doing the wave just right.