Thursday, June 14, 2012

Bells are Bullshit

This week, the Ottawa police are performing a blitz to ensure that cyclists are obeying the rules of the road and are exercising safe biking habits, and I applaud them. Cyclists need to keep themselves and others who share the roads and pathways safe.

The police are also checking to make sure the bikes are equipped for safe travel. They are ensuring the bikes have adequate brakes (no argument there), lights (sure, if it's dark), and... bells.

I own two bicycles: a big, hybrid cruiser and a lean street bike. I ride the hybrid when I have things to carry (it has a carry rack over the rear wheel), when I'm leisurely cycling with the family, or when I'm going somewhere that may not have a secure place for me to store it (if I have to lock up the bike, rather than take it inside with me, I leave my street bike at home).

When I ride my bike, I respect the rules of the road (for the most part). I stop at stop signs and for red lights; I keep to the right-hand side of the road; I give pedestrians the right of way. I share the road or path.

My hybrid has a bell. My road bike does not. It never will.

I bought the bell for my hybrid because when I bought the bike, I knew that Ottawa has a law that states that bells on bikes is mandatory. I'm pretty much a law-abiding citizen, and so I complied with the rule.

When I got home with my new bike and accessories—lights for the front and back, carrier, and bell—I set out to attach them to the bike. Everything was easy to affix to the bike, except the bell.

With the design of my hybrid, the gear levers were placed on the handle bars close to the hand grips, and so I couldn't attach the bell near the grips. But towards the centre of the handle bars, the bar was less crowded and so that's where the bell went. And remains.


The first time I used my bell I learned that I had to remove my hand from the grip and reach over the gear lever for the left-hand side. It wasn't a difficult move, but it wasn't a natural move. It was awkward to ring the bell.

So I stopped using it.

Instead, if I need to pass someone on the road or pathway, I call out: "passing on your left." As I pass, I add, "thank you."

I learned something interesting in calling out, rather than ringing a bell: it's faster; it's more explicit of my intentions; and it also received a better response.

The third result was much more interesting. Before, when I rang my bell, people would react in different ways. They would stop walking. They would jump aside—sometimes, into the left side of the path.

As a cyclist, I don't want people to move as I pass them. I want people to continue on course. The onus is on me to navigate safely around them. And if people know where I'm going, it makes passing safe and easy.

The intention in sharing the path is to ensure that everyone is safe. I don't see how a bell is superior to a voice. A bell simply dings. A voice communicates.

To have a law that requires a bell be equipped on a bike is short-sighted. Who cares what kind of device is used to signal a bike's approach as long as some sort of announcement is made?

My voice didn't cost me anything. My voice is loud and clear. My voice is instructional. Even if the person who I pass doesn't speak English, my voice tells them I'm there, and I'm coming.

My voice is my bell.

If the lawmakers are so adamant to have bells on bikes, they shouldn't go after the people who ride the bikes; they should go after the manufacturers who make them. The bells or other sound makers could be designed into the bike.

Seat belts are mandatory for automobiles. Law makers went after the car makers, who are responsible for equipping the vehicles with passenger restraints.

Cities who arbitrarily impose this law are going after the wrong people. The law is bullshit, pure and simple.

I have a bell on my hybrid. But I don't use it. My road bike doesn't have a bell.

And, so long as my voice works, it never will.

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