March 24, 2014
You Can Ring My Bell…Gently
There’s only one thing to do when you are riding your bike in Copenhagen and you hear a bike bell ring behind you. You move to the right, post haste. It’s not that Danish bell-ringers are generally or especially aggressive in the way they jingle. They aren’t, yet nor are they hesitant. When the bell rings, it rings for you, and it means get over. The socially accepted agreement amongst cyclists on Danish bike lanes is clear. Ringing bell = cyclist move right.
Things are far less clear here in the U.S. That’s because we have a horn honking, rather than a bell-ringing cultural history. And when we honk, we aren’t simply saying, “Out of the way.” Nope. When North Americans honk their horns it also generally means, “Are you crazy? Stop acting like an idiot.”
That’s a pity for fledgling bike culture, because a bike bell is a very handy instrument. If we all had one, and used it, cyclists would not only be safer. Car drivers and pedestrians would benefit, too, because they would be clearer about our intentions.
Bell-ringing can also be a bit of an art. A sweet ‘ring-a-ling’ for example, accomplished by pulling every so softly on a bell’s lever, says, “Hi, I’m here behind you.” A forceful faster pull relays, “Hello, I’m here RIGHT NOW.” And, there’s also the joyful ‘ring-a-ling-a-ling,’ of a bell that is a cyclist’s way of showing she has recognized someone else from the bikey tribe and wants to acknowledge – even proclaim it!
Bike bells are good. They aren’t horns, and they don’t have to be as combative as horns generally are. Instead, with a light touch and the right attitude they can help a cyclist be both safer and clearer about what he or she is doing in the traffic stream. All we need is a little practice, and common agreement on terms.