Motorcycle Nod or Wave: the facts
Updated: Jan 28
Have you ever thought when approaching a rider from the opposite direction if you should nod or wave when you pass each other and ever wondered why we do it and what it means?.
Well the quick answer is it's a simple acknowledgement between bikers whilst riding and to say “Hello brother (or sister), stay safe on the roads.”, although there is a bit more to it.
Riding across different countries, and dependant on which side of the road they ride on, you’ll notice different kinds of acknowledgements between bikers. For example in the UK or where they ride on the left the throttle hand is the one nearest the oncoming biker and it is not natural to let go of the throttle so the nod is preferred, whereas in the rest of Europe or the USA it is more natural to wave as the oncoming biker is nearest the left side, but in truth either one is acceptable as it is a way for motorcyclists to acknowledge each other as they pass each other on the road.
It really is just a simple way of saying hello to someone who has the same passion as you, when it comes to two wheels and looking out for one another, and appreciating a fellow biker who’s on the road.
As mentioned earlier the nod is more commonly used in countries that drive on the left and usually consists of a single nod forward although there are those who prefer a single nod to the side or a lopsided nod as if you are winking or looking down at the left mirror.
This also has the advantage of leaving both hands on the controls therefore it can be considered safer than a wave.
There are few suggestions of where the nod originates from, but the most likely especially in the UK is the old motorcycle "noddy" course at the UK Police Force Driving School when the Police put hundreds of officers on two wheels in the late 1950s, many of them with no motorcycling experience.
The two-week "noddy" course at the police’s Hendon Driving School taught them the tips of motorcycling, including nodding to their senior officers rather than letting go of the handlebars to raise a salute and hence the "noddy" course.
Gordon Newton WW2 Veteran and Chief Superintendent and Commandant of the Hendon Police Driving School was the first instructor of the ‘noddy’ course and hence his nickname "Noddy" Newton.
There is another suggestion that the nod originates from medieval knights, whom if approached by another knight bearing the same coat of arms, both Knights would nod to acknowledge to each other. Although many suggest the nod is just an extension of the wave but adapted in countries that ride on the left.
Although the nod is acceptable in countries that drive on the right the wave is more commonly used and comes in various forms although the most common is by placing your left hand below your handle bars and stick out your index and middle finger just like the peace sign. The reason for two fingers is to say keep two tires on the ground.
There are other waves, which suit different bikes with different positions such as the Straight Left Hand or the Left Hand High etc. The point being it is what suits the individual and is most comfortable and that you acknowledge each other on the road.
There are various versions of how the biker wave came to be but the most popular is believed to originate from 1904 when Arthur Davidson and William Harley were passing each other on the road and they waved at each other. It was noted by a passer-by and believed to be etiquette among riders, or so the tale goes.
Another version comes from the surge of returning war veterans after WWII, who bought military surplus motorcycles in droves. The abundance of motorcycles and the solidarity among veterans gave birth to the biker culture as a whole, and motorcyclists in those days were eager to greet each other with a wave on the road. It wasn’t just as a biker thing, but also as a war veteran thing.
The Wave or Nod is not returned
Just know that there will be some occasions when you will not get a return wave or nod and there is plenty of discussion and humour on this matter as to why, for example it is said that Harley Davidson riders will only acknowledge other Harley Davidson riders, the same applies to BMW riders, or sports bike riders, as well as what country you are in.
Although in my experience it’s the same no matter what country and what you ride and the large majority of all riders do acknowledge a wave or nod.
If the wave or nod is not returned do not feel offended as there may be mitigating circumstances such as road conditions, changing gear, avoiding an obstacle in the road, looking in their mirror etc., or they may be a new rider and do not feel safe enough to take a hand off the handlebars.
It is also important to remember that you may not be able to return a wave due to road conditions as staying safe is the most important part of riding.
So when you are out on the road enjoy yourself, and say hello to your fellow bikers as you pass each other whenever safely possible.
When Not to do the Wave or Nod
If you need to use the Controls
Do not wave when you’re in any situation where you’re using, or might have to use, your controls. Whether you’re changing down into a corner or if there is even a possibility you’ll need your hand on the clutch lever, then don’t wave if you need to focus on your controls a simple Nod will suffice as an acknowledgement.
When Turning a Corner
Even if someone else waves at you, don’t interrupt your concentration just to return the wave. Just focus your attention on the turn as opposed to trying to wave at a fellow rider or a simple Nod will suffice as an acknowledgement.
While in Rush Hour or Commuting
On a weekday morning, riding to work on your bike in heavy traffic, battling it out with all the inattentive drivers crowding the roads. Acknowledging another rider might be pretty low on your list of priorities so It’s okay to not wave while commuting to or from work. So lets just all get where we need to be in one piece (and maybe I’ll catch you on the weekend.)
On a Motorway or Highway
When you pass a rider going the opposite direction on the motorway or freeway, by the time you may wave back, you will have passed me anyway, or there are too many cars on the road and your wave could be misinterpreted as a signal to other drivers.
In the Evening or at Night
Visibility is usually an issue in the evening or at night and the last thing you should do is try to get another rider’s attention.
During Extreme Weather, Rain or Snow
Again visibility is usually an issue and chances are the other rider won’t see you wave, so don’t bother.
At Crossings or Intersections
This one depends how you’re stopped. If you have your clutch pulled in with your hand at a red light when you see another rider, you might acknowledge him, but not with your left hand. Throw a wave with your throttle hand perhaps, or simply a nod of the head.
On the other hand, if you’re stopped in neutral, and just waiting for a green light, wave however you want; maybe even say hello if they pull up right next to you. Just make sure your main focus is on the road, the changing lights, and all the cars passing through that could run a red light at any given moment.
Small Scooters or Mopeds
Now this is only my personal opinion, but whilst in towns and cities I tend to ignore small scooters or mopeds as generally I don't class them as motorcycle riders for various reasons.
In my experience here in Spain they don't adhere to any etiquette or traffic laws as they race around overtaking everything in sight on any side, don't stop at lights, crossings, cut in, weave between traffic endangering others and generally are a menace and give motorcyclists a bad name.
Being a motorcycle tour guide and biker for over 40 years my thoughts on the subject are that I wave or nod at everyone irrespective of what motorcycle they are riding. The way I see it, we are all part of the same biking community and I don't care what motorcycle you ride, as long as you ride and ride safely, and if someone chooses not to wave back, well it’s not going to ruin my day, or my ride.