Ringing my bike bell makes me feel guilty (but it shouldn’t)

Lots of bikes waiting patiently on First Avenue.

Lots of bikes waiting patiently on First Avenue.

Isn’t it strange that despite being developed for the same purpose, bike bells and car horns tend to be used for wildly different reasons?

If you live in New York, you’ve no doubt seen the “no honking” signs that dot our city. On second thought, maybe not, since the city announced earlier this year that it would begin removing them. Still, according to the summary of the New York City Noise Code:

The use of vehicle horns is illegal, except as a warning in situations of imminent danger.

In practice, its use is typically the mark not of a cautious driver, but of an aggressive one, whose impatience and sense of entitlement trumps the safety and free movement of other road-users – not to mention the peace of many neighborhood streets.

Consider the situations in which I heard horns used yesterday. A car in front, turning a corner, had stopped to let pedestrians cross with the light. A cyclist had taken the full lane, as he is entitled to do. The driver ahead couldn’t advance through the intersection without blocking the box (another law that goes woefully underticketed).

What does the horn in each of these situations represent? I’ll attempt a translation: “Run them over so I can go.” “You’re lucky I have restraint, or I’d mow you down.” “Let me cause a traffic jam so I can feel like I’m getting somewhere.” Screw you, it’s all about me, me, me. Honk hooooonk!

I doubt that many drivers, were one to ask them at the time, would admit to these thoughts. The action is not that high-level, simply a reflex to assume the offender is an idiot, and to let them know as much. Scary: in control of a two-ton vehicle, yet relying on reptilian areas of the brain.

Which brings me to why I feel guilty when I ring my bell. I do so for its intended purpose – to protect my safety and that of others. But I’ve been conditioned to think that, since it’s analogous to a car horn, I’m a dick when I use it.

And New York gives me plenty of reinforcement. Perhaps the coup de grâce of my rides yesterday was a girl on Broadway, who, with headphones in her ears and her face glued to the Instagram That Couldn’t Wait, walked right into the bike path. Ring riiiiing!

“Go fuck yourself.” Gee, thanks!

Here’s my primary concern: I try to ride with complete deference to other users, since I feel I’m representing the cycling community every time I get on. But how does one balance the need for safety against a pervasive (although diminishing) collective mindset that cyclists are pricks, and that everything “annoying” they do derives from a sense of smug superiority? A huge shift in this thinking is required, but I don’t know how to attack it. Maybe time is the only cure.

Now that I think about it, I suppose using my bell is, like using a car horn, all about me, me, me. But it’s not because I prefer you get the hell out of my way. It’s because I prefer to remain alive.

This entry was posted in Safe Streets, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply