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I doubt that motor-vehicle drivers can hear the "ding" sound that a bicycle bell makes. What are some better alternatives?

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Can you describe under what conditions are you ringing your bell at motorists? The bell is mostly useful for pedestrians. –  Angelo Dec 10 '12 at 15:15
    
I use to ring my bell continuously while in traffic among cars ("ring-ring-ring-ring-ring-ring-ring..."), and it mostly works with a loud bell, but sometimes the traffic is too loud and something else would work best. –  heltonbiker Dec 10 '12 at 18:40
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@Angelo: Here's the most recent example in which I wanted to communicate with a motorist. It was completely dark outside. I was on a lit four-lane arterial road in Toronto, wearing a yellow reflective vest. My headlamp was a cheap 2 x AA LED flashlight that cost $1. I'd taken the outer lane. A motorist was stopped in the inner lane at a red light. The motorist activated their turn signal. About five seconds later, they started to change lanes directly into my path. (Do you think the motorist had even seen me?) I yelled as loudly as I could, and the motorist aborted the lane-change attempt. –  unforgettableid Dec 10 '12 at 22:07
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@heltonbiker: When I decide to go through a busy intersection on a yellow light, I sometimes loudly sing a favorite song while doing so. This keeps my hands free and might be louder. –  unforgettableid Dec 10 '12 at 22:07
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@unforgettableid, in such a circumstance, I think you would be better off with a much brighter headlight. Even a blast with an air horn might not be enough to keep a motorist from merging in front of you simply because they're not expecting an airhorn as a traffic warning device. On the other hand a sufficiently bright flashing light will get their attention even in the day time. –  Angelo Dec 10 '12 at 23:52
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7 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

I'd go for the air-horn, for example the AirZound.

It is my opinion that screaming and yelling (the primal scream) can cause a lot of unnecessary social distress, and is not a good alterntive for traffic communication and signalling under normal conditions. It ends up being more effective when you're in "panic" as said, which is barely a day-by-day acceptable situation to be.

Air horns, on the other hand, save your throat, are MUCH louder, and have a more emotionaly neutral sound, adequate for signaling in traffic, specially heavy urban traffic.

One single thing is paramount, based in my experience with bell-rings: the activation lever must be easily, instantly accessible by your thumb when the hand is in braking position. If you have to move or reposition your hand in order to activate the horn, it will be underused and practically uneffective.

Hope this helps!

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Air powered horns are certainly the best way to make a racket on a bike, but you'll want to be sensitive to the situation - avoiding retaliation or use in anger. Even then, it's hard to see bikes ever making the same noise footprint as motor vehicles if a fleet of agro/militant pedalists all decided to air-horn up and let out some anger. –  bmike Dec 10 '12 at 18:33
    
@bmike: When a motorist cuts off another motorist by making, say, a right turn not in safety, then the aggrieved motorist often honks. Do you agree that this is acceptable? And do you agree that it's acceptable for a cyclist to do the same? –  unforgettableid Dec 10 '12 at 22:09
    
I guess I couldn't resist saying that some people shouldn't use horns. I should have assumed positive intent and just not commented, but hopefully we're all in agreement - sometimes you need a loud horn for safety. I actually wish operators on US roads used horns more freely to let someone know they are there - some foreign countries do this much better than we do. "toot toot" - i'm here can be very useful. –  bmike Dec 10 '12 at 22:11
    
@bmike: Sorry: I expressed myself wrongly. Let me try again. –  unforgettableid Dec 10 '12 at 22:36
    
@bmike: Sometimes a motorist cuts off another motorist by making, say, a right turn not in safety. After both parties have cleared the intersection, the aggrieved motorist often honks as a way of saying, "You made a mistake: don't do it next time." Do you agree that this is acceptable? And do you agree that it's acceptable for a cyclist to honk in the same situation? –  unforgettableid Dec 10 '12 at 22:37
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I've always just used my voice as a warning to pedestrians about to step in front of me, and a few instances over the years to a driver or two who wasn't paying attention to their driving. I just use a loud/sustained a "Hoooooooo", repeated as necessary, ( like Santa's Ho, Ho, Ho ), to get someones attention. It can be loud enough to attract attention and doesn't sound confrontational to pedestrians like a loud "Hey" might, and can be louder for a driver with the windows rolled up. It's quick and keeps both hands on the bars in case an avoidence move is needed. Never had problems using this method, plus there's no weight added to the bike and no maintenance ( batteries/air ) involved. Additionally, always be polite and when overtaking pedestrians on a walking path, give them a "On your left, or on your right" as needed before you pass them from behind. If bikers want respect, we must also give it!

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This may not be availble yet (or ever) but I think the Loud Bicycle horn is potentially a fantastic answer to this problem, and well worth mentioning. It's as loud as an air-horn, but has the characteristic dual-pitch that makes a car horn instantly recognizable. Nothing triggers a motorist's reflexive braking like the sound of a car horn pointing in their direction.

There are lots of (potentially) awesome features:

  • (reasonably) light weight at 23oz
  • non-removable
  • weather-proof
  • runs via a rechargable battery which holds a charge for one to two months
  • can be honked for 30 consecutive seconds on a charge.

Disclaimer: I am not associated with the product beyond having backed the Kickstarter, and thinking that it's a great product.

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After a few years of riding in the streets, I have found that cars will do stupid things no matter how obvious you are to them. Have you ever seen a car pull out in front of a semi? I have, those things are BIG!! For the most part, you might be able to get someone's attention after a few attempts at whatever you decide to use, sounds or lights, but in the end, you should know that it is YOUR ability to avoid the other car that will save your life and not your ability to get the driver's attention. If you try unsuccessfully to get their attention, do NOT just go in front of them and say, dang, I tried...

I spent a few years in San Francisco as a street rider, before the X-Games we rode BMX in the streets, jumping curbs and such. We just have to assume that cars WILL NOT SEE YOU! We learned to ride in a way that the cars could not hit you even in they were trying. There are some riders that are jerks and cut cars off, but those are the few (same percent of road bikes I am guessing). I even ride a big cruiser motorcycle with extra loud pipes and over bright headlight and still have people cut in front of me, it will happen no matter what you do.

The most important thing is to stay safe. Try and get their attention, but if you can't don't insist on the right of way, figure other ways around the situation.

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You make many good points. But one — that motorists "will not see you" — is misleading. It may be true for trick riders. But as for me, for years, I've taken the lane while commuting. Many times, perhaps tens of thousands of times, a motorist has caught up to me from behind. Not one has ever failed to see that I was ahead of them in the middle of the lane. Some have honked in frustration. But never once has one hit me from behind. Moral: If you take the lane, motorists will normally see you. –  unforgettableid Dec 17 '12 at 3:11
    
Please edit your answer so that it does not imply, in general, that motorists "will not see you". Because, as my previous comment shows, if you take the lane, they will see you. If you remove that implication, then ping me. I may then vote your answer up, since it contains many other good points. –  unforgettableid Dec 17 '12 at 3:13
    
Thanks for helping me making my answer more precise. I wish "taking the lane" in "normal" situations was ALWAYS safe. My brother on a MTB was run over while in a left hand turn lane waiting for the light after "taking the lane". The driver leaned out and asked him directions to some location, while my brother was pinned under his bike still under the car's tire. It was an older man, seemed nice, so I hope it wasn't road rage. I've never been hit, but my brother, following all the rules, did. I can't lead readers to think that doing tricks is the problem. I hope my edit is still acceptable. –  BillyNair Dec 21 '12 at 11:04
    
I hope that you see I am trying to help, bicycle safety is important! I ride with 2 rules: 1) Assume cars can't see you; 2) Assume the few that can will try to hit you. I have had a car turn around and come at me, and ran off the road to try and hit me on purpose! I was NOT doing tricks at the time, he was just mad that I was on the road and made him slow down. (there was no shoulder). In MOST situations, you should be OK taking the lane, this only happened once in my 25 years of riding, but that incident, with my brother getting run over, makes me want to warn people that things CAN happen. –  BillyNair Dec 21 '12 at 11:13
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Screaming is faster and much more effective: I suspect it's usually best. Or use an electric horn or air horn.

About screaming:

The BHSI writes as follows.

We don't find that horns do much for safety on a bicycle. Your voice is faster to react and adapts better to different situations. The primal scream produces good adrenalin-based reactions in motorists and is probably your best defense in most bike/car situations. It requires no evaluation by the driver, since the panic in your voice is obvious, and it can move a car over a lane almost instantly. Curse words will not improve on that, by the way, since you will get a quicker reaction when the motorist is scared, not angry.

My usual yell is the interjection "C'mon", yelled loudly enough that I'm in pain for a couple minutes afterwards. Cars hear it fine and react quickly. (Disclaimer: I've never needed to try yelling at a driver with his stereo blasting.)

Here in Canada, drivers are relatively polite. I try not to yell at a driver unless they make a mistake, such as trying to change lanes into my path. Since I learned to ride a bike, I've yelled at dozens of drivers. No driver has ever retaliated.

Sometimes, instead of yelling, I use my voice to mimic a car horn: I loudly say, "Meep, meeeeep". Sometimes I even pinch my nose while doing so: that way, others can look around and see that it was clearly me who made the sound.

About horns:

If you cannot yell — for example, if you insist on wearing a face mask — invest in a high-decibel horn. Some accept rechargeable batteries. Air horns require you to fill and carry an air bottle. Neither type is as reliable as your voice.

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Agreed - the last thing you do in an emergency is take a hand off the bars...... (pun intended) –  mattnz Dec 10 '12 at 20:55
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@mattnz I think any bell or horn is only effective when the button or lever is reachable by the thumb in the most frequent hand position, usually the one that allows you to brake. Since I don't have front derailers in my both commuters, I have a lever bell turned upside down so that the position is the same of the thumb position of a rapid fire. I can even keep ringing the bell while braking (do it all the time). –  heltonbiker Dec 10 '12 at 23:04
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Depending on the situation, you may be able to "flash" your front light by covering and uncovering it with your hand. I've managed to make drivers dip their headlights with this technique, but it's not that easy to do in a rush or when braking. Of course it will only work when you're facing the car.

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As an aside, having an especially bright front light (my best one is a Hope Vision One) seems to make drivers take me more seriously. I'm not sure if they think I'm closer than I am, or that I'm a motorbike or that they're just a bit dazzled seeing so play it cautious, but it seems to help. –  JamesBradbury Dec 10 '12 at 14:54
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And an aside to your aside, if you have an especially bright front light, consider covering it with your hand as you pass other bikers (last 50 - 100'). Otherwise the light will ruin their night vision and unless they have an equally bright light, they will be pedaling by braille for the next couple of minutes. –  Ken Hiatt Dec 10 '12 at 16:48
    
@KenHiatt - Required on dark bike paths. Probably not while on the roads as your light will be about the same brightness as car headlights. –  sixtyfootersdude Dec 10 '12 at 19:00
    
Good suggestions, but I'm not sure about riding one-handed for however long it takes to pass the other biker. Perhaps I should make some kind of flip-down flap or filter. –  JamesBradbury Dec 11 '12 at 8:50
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I have noticed that shouting (whatever words you use) is often taken personally by the drivers. It's probably the most effective and quickest to use in an emergency as described.

I've seen several cyclists with a football whistle on a lanyard round the neck (mine is on my helmet strap) that can be held loosly between the teeth.

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I have a whistle velcro'd to the side of my mirror. –  WTHarper Dec 10 '12 at 13:50
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I'm hesitant about the "yelling" approach that seems to be getting a lot of votes. Many drivers will take this as a personal affront and as stated elsewhere, a car outweighs a bike by a LOT. While the whistle seems to be overused by those that carry them, I've not seen any bad reactions to them and drivers DO hear them. –  Ken Hiatt Dec 10 '12 at 16:45
    
@KenHiatt that's exactely what I think. If there is a standard, impersonal, anonymous "traffic law" way of negotiating between vehicles (traffic signs and lights, lane paintings, horn, directional lights, etc.), then screaming in panic is, for sure, a noise rather than a signal, and a disturbance instead of useful communication. EXCEPT, of course, when drivers behave dangerously or the rider is otherwise in real danger, which should not happen often. (whistling could be maybe a form of cheating, but as you said, it's harmless, and works!) –  heltonbiker Dec 10 '12 at 18:49
    
Whistles have the added benefit of being able to signal for help in emergency situations. They are louder and easier to sustain than shouting in the event of an accident or injury. Sets of three blasts on a whistle are a fairly universal signal for "HELP". –  WTHarper Dec 16 '12 at 21:19
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