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Motorcycle Etiquette: How Not to Wave Like a Dork

Time Rider writes about bikes, bikers, and motorcycle etiquette.

Left-handed low and and left-handed high biker waves

Left-handed low and and left-handed high biker waves

How to Wave While Riding a Motorcycle

If you drive a motorcycle, you know about “the wave.” The wave is your rolling connection to your biker brother and sisterhood, but is there a special secret to this wave? When you started riding, did you seek out a wave master and perhaps copy theirs, or did you develop one of your own? Have you ever wondered if your wave is appropriate? Unfortunately, wave training is not covered in the basic or advanced motorcycle safety classes.

Well, here I present the five basic motorcycle waves. Your worries about not knowing proper biker etiquette are over.

Five Motorcycle Waves

Left-Handed Low

Aimed down towards street with the extension of one, two, three, or five fingers.

Left-handed Straight Out

Arm fully or partially extended higher or lower than shoulder.

Left-Handed High

Elbow should be bent with slight forward angling of the forearm.


Typically employed by Ultra Classic and Goldwing riders.

Left-Handed Forward

Almost imperceptible due to the speed of the wave and the bike.


Origins of the Motorcycle Wave

Many riders believe there was once a secret wave society, similar to the Priere de Sion fraternal order, founded back in 1903 when the first Harley Davidson rolled out of the shed. There wasn't. It all started one day in 1904 when Arthur Davidson passed by William Harley, and since they knew each other, they waved. Another biker saw the two "Kings of Motorcycles" doing this and thought this was a biker necessity. A tradition was born.

The waving tradition continued through the years but was always haphazard. There were bikers doing the "Bye Grandma Wave," others doing the "Howdy Wave," and still others doing the extremely feminine "Princess Wave."

In 1946, after several years of these image-destroying gestures, a group of crusty old bikers decided to put some proper waving rules in place. They formed the Wave Hard And True Biker Society. Abbreviation: WHAT-BS.

To Wave or Not to Wave?

To wave or not to wave, that is the question. We’ve all faced that moment when we felt obligated to wave but then become unsure. The worrying starts, and then there’s that overwhelming feeling of guilt. Well, worry no more. Here are some general waving rules to help guide you:

  • On the interstate; unnecessary
  • On a curve; unnecessary
  • In the rain or at night; unnecessary
  • On a mellow two-lane; proper
  • On a highway with little traffic; proper
  • At a rally, unnecessary
  • In traffic, unnecessary.

There are, however, times when not waving is just downright rude. So if you’re not a jackass, you should, if at all possible, reciprocate when another biker waves to you.

If it’s the proper place and time and you receive no reciprocal wave, don’t get your panties in a bunch and think you’ve just passed a jackass, because there are some acceptable reasons. These reasons are as follows:

  • You weren’t seen
  • Clutch manipulation
  • A head nod was substituted

The Five Basic Motorcycle Waves

Here are the five basic motorcycle waves you need to know.

1. Left-Handed Low

Sometimes this wave is called the Harley or cruiser wave. These are typically used by cruiser-style or custom-chopped motorcycle riders. The arm is fully extended and aimed down towards the street at a 45 or lesser degree angle, with one, two, three, or five fingers extended.

The direction of the palm is also critical to the look and feel of this wave. The palm must either face the other rider or face the road. A classic variation of the finger positioning is to throw a peace sign (duce) or a thumbs up.

A low wave with an angle greater than 45 degrees and/or with the palm facing up or back and/or with the use of four fingers is telling the biker community at large that you are either new or inept. If you have a cruiser and can't get this wave to work for you, then consider the Left-Handed Straight Out or trading in your bike.

2. Left-Handed Straight Out

This is an all-around general wave. They're typically used by crotch rockets, cruisers, customs, and bagger riders. The arm can be either fully or partially extended with no more than a 10-degree angle higher or lower than the shoulder. The palm must be facing the oncoming rider in either a horizontal or vertical position, and a full palm must be shown.

It is suggested that you present the hand in a relaxed state, as flattening it will make you look like a dork. The classic variations of the peace sign (duce) or thumbs up are also acceptable. If practiced, this is one of the easiest waves to master and will work with all bikes.

If, for some reason, you can't get this wave to work, you will probably have serious problems with the kickstand dynamic and should immediately sell your motorcycle before you cause yourself any more embarrassment.

3. Left-Handed High

This is a variation of the typical wave seen made by kings and kids alike. It's used mostly by upright riders of crotch rockets and baggers. The elbow is kept even or slightly lower than shoulder height. The elbow should be bent at about a 75-to-85-degree angle with a slight forward angling of the forearm. The palm must be facing the oncoming rider, and the hand can either remain still, though the use of a side-to-side motion is acceptable.

This wave has been proven very useful when you have a loose watchband. It is suggested you present the hand in a relaxed state, as, once again, flattening it will make you appear to be a dork. The classic variations of the peace sign (duce) or thumbs up are frowned upon when using this type of wave. It's a bit too over-the-top.

Important: Should you be riding a crotch rocket, it is extremely important to maintain the crotch rocket image by using this wave only if the left hand is coming from the left hip or thigh. This should never, ever be used when coming from the handlebars.

Warning of possible injury: Do not use this type of wave on a cruiser. You will appear aloof, snobbish, and everyone will hate you. If you have a medical condition or feel you must use this type of wave, get a bagger or ride a crotch rocket only in the upright position, and don't be a dick about it. There are rules.

4. Right-Handed

This is also known as the "Ha, ha. I have cruise control" wave. It is occasionally used by bagger riders but more typically by Ultra Classic and Goldwing riders. They're riding on rolling living room sofas. These big, comfy, and not really cool bikes are great for touring.

This lack of coolness can cause a temporary condition known as "dickishness," which can be instantly healed by passing a cruiser and giving the right-hand wave. The general message being sent is, "You might be on a cool bike but damn it, I'm comfy." If the rider of the touring bike is a smoker, he will typically light up a cigarette or a cigar, just to drive the point home.

5. Left-Handed Forward

This wave is used solely by crotch rocket riders because, let's face it, what the hell else can they do in that position? A flashed wave, it is almost imperceptible due to the speed of the wave and the bike.

To execute this wave, one must slightly raise the left hand from the grip, no more than three or four inches, show the palm, and return to the grip. This entire motion must be fluid and executed in under three seconds.

You must learn all the intricacies of this wave before you take your first ride. If you don't, they will know you're a newbie, and you'll instantly become pink-slip bait. The only way to avoid this lame wave stigma is by doing something crazy like riding a wheelie while naked. If you don't fall off, that's a big plus.


Maintain the Rule of the Wave

When approaching another biker always remember to maintain the rule of "The Wave." You never know who's watching!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.