Bell or yell?

Spring seems to be creeping up on us. The latest sign? The B-Cycles appeared at the library when I was there Monday.

B-Cycles in foreground. Covered bike parking in the background for the rest of us.

They may be parked in snow, but they’re ready. When the program first began, the bikes looked a lot like these (but were red) and weighed a ton. They offered free or heavily-discounted memberships through employers to try to stimulate interest. I tried a membership that first year and I think I used the bikes twice – once when I had a mechanical problem on the way to work and I locked my bike to a pole and jumped on a B-Cycle in order to get work on time, and once when I considered using them as my bad-weather commuter to save wear and tear on my own bike. I seldom saw them on the road.

A few years ago they switched to a fleet of e-bikes and now I see them almost daily. This is a case of e-bikes working. I see a lot of folks on bikes that might not be riding otherwise. They don’t have to think about plugging them in when they get home. The program takes care of that. They don’t have to worry about other maintenance. The program takes care of that, too.

Today I had golden opportunities to revisit the “bell vs yelldiscussion. (I wrote a series on bike safety in April, 2018.) I have written before about having a bell on each of my commuting bikes to use on multi-use paths. When you approach pedestrians on these paths, it is prudent to let them know you are there. You don’t want to startle them. Calling “on your left” is generally advised. But what happens? Some hear “left” as a command and immediately move left. As they do that, they process the sentence and realize you said “on your left” and that means they should move right – so they suddenly veer back to the right.

Or they turn their head to the left to see where you are. The way humans are built, we follow our heads. If we start to fall, we jerk our head in the opposite direction of the fall in order to remain upright. If we look or turn our head to the left, our bodies will follow. That happens walking, riding a bike, riding a horse, or driving a car. It can be overcome with training, but it is our natural tendency. So the person who heard you call out now veers into your path unintentionally.

Ringing a bell has a different effect. First, the cheerful “ding” sounds less obtrusive than a yell. Second, we seem to have a better ability to localize the sound. Hearing a bell on the left makes us move to the right out of the way. Our brain does not confuse us with words that tell us one thing and sound that tells us another. While the evidence is empirical, not experimental, years of experience bear this out. It would be interesting to try to design a controlled experiment to test this.

That said, the bell has limitations. That became clear later on Tuesday’s commute. A bell is neither loud nor urgent enough to gain the attention of most motorists. It also requires use of a hand that may be better used another way in that moment. I don’t mean flipping them off, I mean braking and/or steering.

As I proceeded down the street, a motorist at a stop sign to my right stopped, looked right, then proceeded into the intersection without looking left to see me coming. I screamed “STOP!” and she did so, instantly…just before she looked left to see me and as I swerved left to get around her (since I was going 20+ mph and she was just starting from a standstill).

In this case, language is not confusing. Language and sound send the same message. A loud and insistent voice, coupled with an unambiguous word, often results in the desired effect. Just as hearing “left” sounds like a command to move left, hearing “stop” sounds like a command to stop. People often apply the brake before they consciously process the word and connect it to the situation.

While I will resist the temptation to get deeply into the weeds of linguistics, neurolinguistics, and psycholinguistics, I will refer you to the Stroop Color and Word Test. This test consists of a page filled with columns of color words (red, blue, yellow, green, brown if I remember correctly) but written in a color of ink that does not match the word. Your job is to either read the word or call out the color of ink, depending on the instructions. You are timed and errors are recorded. It is way harder than it might sound.

RIP Ugo DeRosa

Ugo DeRosa died this week at the age of 89. He founded the company that bears his name in 1953 and his sons and grandsons continue to run it. DeRosa’s bikes were well-known in the pro peloton. (He built bikes for Eddy Merckx beginning in 1973.) Like all long time framebuilders, he started in hand-brazed steel. You can still buy a brazed steel DeRosa frame, but you can also get frames TIG-welded in steel or titanium, or molded in carbon fiber. DeRosa bikes were known for the heart-shaped cutout lugs.

From the DeRosa website. A modern DeRosa.

Author: halffastcyclingclub

We are a group of friends who ride bikes. Some of us are fast, some of us are slow, all of us are half-fast. In 2018, one of us rode coast to coast across the US. It was so much fun, he's doing it again in 2022! If we meet Sal Paradise, we'll let you know.

8 thoughts on “Bell or yell?”

  1. DC’s bikeshare system just added a bunch of sleek looking e-bikes. Reviews from my friends say that they are the bees knees.

    I agree with you about the bell or yell with one exception. When I was in SF at the end of my 2019 tour, my friend Jesse said that locals don’t like bells and much prefer spoken warnings like “Good morning, passing on your left.”

    The you-go-where-you look thing is familiar. I nearly crashed when I was learning to drive because I looked at the car passing on my left. Of course, I unconsciously steered toward the car. My dad corrected me.

    I always tell kids who are learning to ride not to look down at their feet. I can’t look down when walking across an open grated bridge. I completely lose my orientation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do like “good morning” and use it when I’m on a bell-less bike. I don’t usually add the “on your left” part for the reasons above. Folks seem to localize the “good morning” without the accompanying freak-out about laterality. If it’s not morning, it’s a little harder. “Good afternoon” sounds so formal.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. If you don’t believe me or Rootchopper, try an experiment. I’m a little reluctant to say this, so do it carefully. Ride your bike through a turn (with no traffic around). Look where you want to exit the turn. The bike will go there. Try it again, looking at an obstacle (a pothole, the curb that you’d hit if you take the turn too wide). The bike will go there. Please look away (and back to where you want to go) instead of crashing, which is why I hesitate to say this at all. The experiment works best with a bit of speed. If you enter a turn faster than you should have, focusing on the exit point will help you get there safely. Hitting the brakes in the middle of a turn won’t.


  3. I’m a big believer in bike bells. I have a big loud one on my mtb and a small subtle sounding one on my road bike. Pedestrians often thank me for ringing. I think every bike should have one and don’t understand riders who don’t use them.

    Liked by 1 person

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