Commuting 101: Make Them Hear You

Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.
Proverbs 17:27-28 (NIV)

…Unless he or she is a cyclist…

Children should be seen and not heard.

…Unless they’re on a bike. Then they should be both…

This is probably more applicable for those of you who ride on bike/hike paths than for those of you who only ride in traffic. In traffic, being visible is paramount. You are riding with the flow of traffic (aren’t you?). More people are passing you than you are passing — unless traffic is at a stand still, in which case they may not be able to hear you anyway. Still, being seen AND heard is the wise way to travel.

With the kids out of school for the summer, I’ve recently taken to riding the long way to work. Rather than the straight shot of 0.7 miles of traffic and 3 miles of bike path, I’m riding the 0.7 miles in traffic and 22 miles of bike path. That means I have the opportunity to encounter more than 7 times as many pedestrians and cyclists, most of which are using the center of the path. I take pride in the stealthiness of my bikes, but that means the people I’m coming up behind don’t know I’m there. So, I make have to make some noise.

Use a bell.

My bell is small, cheap and extremely effective. I start ringing well in advance of passing so that people have a chance to turn around and see me and make a decision as to what they’re going to do. Let’s face it, most pedestrians are going to react in the same way that squirrels and chipmunks do; they’ll start going one way and turn suddenly to go the other way, stop in the middle for a moment and then go a completely unexpected direction. Fine. Let them do this long before you get there.

My little bell has even caught the attention of a guy running a weed-whacker. The down side to using a bell like this one is that it just won’t register with some people. My favorite examples from the last couple weeks are the guy who thought he had dropped some change and the woman who thought her cell phone was ringing. Again, the more time you give people to react, the better.

Use a horn.

Be it electric buzzer, an air-powered semi horn or a horn like Harpo Marx used, you’ll want to be sure you use it well in advance for the same reasons listed above.

Use your voice.

No bell, no horn, no problem. Feel free to yell loud enough to make yourself heard, just be polite. If I am on a bike without a bell, or if I don’t have enough time to get to it, I yell “BIKE!” Doesn’t get more clear than that. Even when I use my bell I say something when I get right on top of people. “Good morning,” “On your left,” “Nice day,” “There’s one more bike behind me.” Spread the love people.

There will be times that none of the above will be of much help. There have been several parents out walking or riding with young kids; they won’t know what to do. Easy solution: make yourself heard, make sure they see you and then slow down so they can get their brood pulled together. They’re frustrated enough, so I say “Sorry” as I roll slowly by and let them relax a bit, or if they apologize I’ll just smile and say “No problem.” And it isn’t a problem. We’re all out there to enjoy the path and there are enough people on bikes who’ll just blow past them that they’ll be glad someone took the time to give them a chance to figure things out.

You’ll be bound to run into critters with more than two legs. Sometimes a bell works on animals. Sometimes a horn works. Sometimes yelling at animals will be enough to get them to move out of harms way. Most times, the above methods won’t do anything but make the little ones run in circles and the big ones brace for an onslaught. I’ve stumbled on to a method that works for me most of the time. If you’ve ever watched the Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic Channel you will know what I’m talking about. “PSSSSST!” Take a breath, purse your lips and let it rip through your teeth. PSSSSST! has worked for me in shooing off squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, deer, woodchucks, beaver, bobcats, coyotes, dogs, cats, various birds and some teenagers. The only thing making this noise hasn’t helped me with are bucks during mating season and snakes. Snakes will probably feel the vibrations on the path and move off on their own; rutting bucks don’t have the ability to think so use your best judgment.

How about you? What do you do to make yourself heard?

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0 thoughts on “Commuting 101: Make Them Hear You”

  1. ryan says:

    the bell on my 2005 Specialized Globe has come loose, and as such, it constantly dings a little on the handlebars, kind of like one of the Kona bells I’ve seen on the trail. when I need to ring the bell, I just prop it up with one hand and ring it. I wish I could find a kona cow bell to have the best of both worlds.

  2. Badger says:

    I’ve been a bell geek since 2005 when I started commuting. Last weekend a walker actually thanked me for my “usual” ding-ding-ding that I give folks on the path. She said she wished more cyclists would use them!

  3. Kelly says:

    I will cough loudly if I’ve suddenly come up behind someone. It seems to confuse pedestrians less than shouting “bike” or “on your left”.

  4. Warren T says:

    Sometimes it helps to throw a little confusion their way. While on a ride with one of my sons we approached a pedestrian talking on a cell phone. Ding ding brought no response. “Coming up behind you” … no response. I don’t know why (other than to amuse my son) I said, loudly, “Beware the frogs of time.”

    The guy turned around and stared at us. But, hey, he saw us.

  5. Quinn says:

    Nothing beats the Delta Air Soundz for riding in traffic!

    I have heard that the Incrdibell is the best for path riding.

  6. rhome says:

    I don’t know what it is about where I ride but most pedestrians are oblivious to my bell and my voice. Even though I slow down and start my alert way early. Well, about 70% of them are either talking on cellphones or have earbuds in so that’s a big part of it. Other times my bell sends them scurrying with fear, which is better than my voice which is almost always ignored. Frustated by this, I stopped announcing myself for a while until a woman let off a tirade of curses at me for startling her. So at least I still make an effort again to not be that a–hole cyclist.

  7. Juan says:

    Incredibell all the way! I use mine 2-3 times each morning. Not sure if it’s the pitch, or how much control you have over the volume and frequency, but I can usually get the attention of most iPod/dog walkers. Usually the dogs hear me first, and take off with their masters in tow. I wish I had two.

  8. mb says:

    AirZound 2 ftw!

    Nothing beats that for commutes in heavy traffic.

  9. thePig says:

    I can’t quite bring myself to have a bell on my bike. I click my brake lever many times that usually does the job. If I am riding with someone else I will start talking very loudly to them as we come up to pedestrians.

    I always thank them for moving out of the way.

  10. Ghost Rider says:

    “Beware the frogs of time”. Dude, that’s my new mantra! Awesome!

  11. Rose in Arizona says:

    At first I was embarrassed to use my bell, but now use it with good results. Someone asked me the other day if I had any ice cream (Good Humor). Most wave and smile.

  12. Semus says:

    I’m with Quinn & mb all the way

    It even gets the attention
    of drunken college students
    This though is maybe a bit

  13. araqnid says:

    I cycle along the canal to work and have to negotiate past quite a few pedestrians there. I find it best to just leave ideas of the towpath being a speed track behind and accept slowing down to pass people. Certainly when I’ve been walking along there, I’ve found it immensely irritating that the first I hear of a cyclist is when they start freewheeling 50cm behind me… no bell, no call, nothing! argh! Most people say thanks when I ring the bell to pass them; technically it’s a requirement to use the path that you have and use a bell, but I get the impression the majority of cyclists don’t bother 🙁

    The only real altercation I had on the towpath was with a goose that decided to run first one way, then the opther in front of me. I fell over, and it reached the water… it flapped its wings at me so I shook my fist at it and yelled “plum sauce!” Nothing serious though :p

  14. Cafn8 says:

    I have an incredibell, and use it sometimes, but most people seem oblivious to it in my area. What I have found to be pretty effective is to yank my rear shift lever (good old friction shifter) just enough to make the derailleur rattle.

    It makes people think my bike is a neglected heap, and maybe they’re right, but it seems to work, and it also seems unintentional, so it’s less like I’m saying “get out of my way” and more like they’re discovering me on their own.

  15. PushingWind says:

    I’ve been using a cheapo bell on my commuter for years. It is a good way to “announce your presence with authority” without scaring the heck out of people. Most people I’ve encountered on the bike path freak out when you call out “rider” or “on your left”. Although I did make some woman jump 4 feet straight up when I “rang” my bell 20 feet away while going slow. More than a few people have turned expecting/hoping to see an ice-cream vechile. I wish!

    None of this helps with the music-listening 30-foot retractable leash using dog walkers. A leash should be less than the width of any path, or 6 feet max. I’ve been clotheslined to the ground nearly a handful of times. Too bad we can’t take corrective action with the leash or the holder…..

  16. In quiet areas, just back-pedaling a couple of turns so that the ratchet thingy in the freewheel does it’s stuff makes enough noise to let people know you’re coming.

  17. Elaine says:

    My favorite story: coming up behind a group of middle school kids running on the trail. (Track? Soccer? not sure.) The bell got a few of them off to the side, a few more with the “on your left!”

    But one kid was entirely oblivious — ah, to be 12 — and I had to call out his jersey number: “you, number 48, move!” because I was about on top of him with no way around. Finally one of his buddies grabbed him and pulled him over to where the rest of them were running.

    Yesterday was the mini-flock of geese; luckily they were easier to maneuver around than middle school kids. 🙂

  18. Matt says:

    Bells are great, but get a brass one. Brass sounds much nicer than steel or aluminum. My wife is a church music director and does a handbell choir. There are no aluminum handbells. There’s a reason for that.

  19. Nick Wright says:

    My Trek came with a little bell like the one you have pictured. But I’m going to purchase one of the old fashioned types.

    I’m just not convinced that folks who hear that new type know what it is they’re hearing.

    The old style with its very distinctive ring seems like it would be a better idea. There’s no doubt when you hear that old style that there’s a bike around somewhere.

  20. Sean M says:

    Delt Air Zound — the only thing I’ve found that gets the attention of auto drivers. Unfortunately, the most use I get out of this air horn is a kind of post facto relief of aggression and frustration, sort of like shaking one’s fist and yelling: ‘hey you! you just cut me off!’ It’s more effective than that, however, because the sound is so shockingly loud that it does send out a strong signal to a driver who has just cut off a cyclist buy turning into the Blockbuster video right in front of him without looking…

    The few instances where the horn seems to work to prevent vehicular misbehavior is in the case of cars doing u-turns and thinking they can swing their boat around before my bike arrives. The horn usually causes them to stop dead in their tracks, take notice, reasses my speed, and let me pass. Another instance where the horn comes in handy is when a car is ready to take a turn and does not make anything close to eye contact with me (approaching). Again, the horn gets their attention all right.

    I recommend using a horn for communicating with car drivers, both before and after they do something naughty. After the event at least lets them know that they just did something to aggravate a cyclist and may provoke some thought and behavior modification. For the instances where the horn can get a driver’s attention before something bad happens, the horn is again a good communicator, much better, I’d say, than a car horn. Bike horns often function to make me “visible” where I was invisible before. It is rare indeed the circumstance where a car horn fulfills this role, simply because drivers are generally aware of other cars (that’s what they are looking for, not cyclists unfortunately…yet).

    However, if it is pedestrians that we are worried about, DON’T USE THE AIRZOUND! it is so loud that it frightens people and can get you in serious trouble (ice cream cones flying, dogs yelping, grandmother gasping for air…). So, have a bell handy, too. I’ve been meaning to get a bell. I’ve heard that a local historical museum sells a nice, old-fashioned brass bell at a good price….

  21. Fritz says:

    I used an AirZounds air horn for a while. They’re a lot of fun but only minimally useful, IMO. Blasting a horn does usually does nothing from a safety standpoint — if you have time to blast the horn, you have time to hit the brakes or steer around the problem. Communicating with the driver is pointless — they have no idea what they did wrong even if you honk at them. For real communication, my (loud) voice is usually effective, and it’s usable even while my hands are occupied with the brakes and steering. As with most things, YMMV.

    Agreed that AirZounds are not suitable for use around pedestrians — I know people who advocate their use on pedestrian paths, but it seems antisocial to me.

  22. Mac says:

    I have no need for any of these. My front breaks squeal louder than any bell I’ve heard and boy do people get out of the way when they hear it. In my experience yelling anything just confuses people. %90 of the time I yell “passing on your left” people dive to the left. I agree though, making sure people have time to make a decision is key.

  23. J TO says:

    I use a dinger bell, like the Incredibell; but to tell the truth it doesn’t register with many people. The ratchet bells with the rrring-rrrring sound are more familiar to people as a bicycle bell.

    When I’m on a bike path where everyone is attuned to the traffic and understands the meaning of a dinger bell, no problem. Out on the street I supplement with a loud whistle (survival whistle like Fox 40). I keep the whistle hanging around my neck on a lanyard. When biking past parked cars or approaching intersections, I pop the whistle into my mouth. It’s a piercing sound that NEVER fails to get the attention of drivers or pedestrians.

    I wouldn’t use the whistle coming up behind pedestrians, though. Because it is so piercing it would, I’m sure, provoke some panicked reactions. But as a way of stopping a driver from pulling out into the road or a pedestrian from running out in front of me, the whistle can’t be beat.

    For the odd time when I need a sudden signal and the whistle is not in my mouth, I resort to a shout. I started with “Wait!”, but is sounded angry when voiced loudly, so I went to plain shouts like “Ho!”. Then I discovered that a couple of words or syllables together register better. “Heads up!” is a good one. Having read the other comments, I’m now going to try “Bike! Thank you!”

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