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July 2019

Using the Voice

by John S. Allen, CRW Safety Coordinator

One real advantage which bicyclists have, and especially with other bicyclists, is the ability to communicate using the voice. Compare this with the motorist, who can only sound the horn. Unless both you and the motorist happen to know Morse Code, the horn conveys only one message: "I am here." That can be taken as a friendly announcement, a warning or bullying, but it is very limited. Any other sound which a motor vehicle makes -- engine noise, tire noise -- is only incidental. It can provide a clue that a vehicle is present, accelerating, slowing down, etc. and that can be useful, but it doesn't say much about the driver's intentions. Bicyclists, on the other hand, have the full use of language with each other! (Well, except when seriously out of breath, or -- antisocial and unsafe on group rides -- wearing headphones).

So, what should we say while riding?

It is helpful to announce that you are about to pass another bicyclist, or a pedestrian. The standard expression is "on your left," and it is good in a group of bicyclists you know and trust, but it can confuse neophytes who take it as a suggestion to merge or turn left. Especially, don't use it with pedestrians! My wife taught me to say "behind you" instead.

If you have a loud voice, you may even use it like a car horn to get through to a pedestrian wearing headphones, or the driver in a car with the windows closed, but donít count on it. Some bicyclists use a bell, but it only works for other people who are out in the open. A bicycle bell canít communicate anything more than a car horn does, and it isnít nearly as loud as most peopleís voices can be.

Pedestrians can change direction suddenly. Always be sure that a pedestrian has acknowledged your presence, or else pass with a wide clearance. But this is mostly an issue when riding on a shared-use path. You shouldn't be riding on sidewalks anyway.

In an earlier Safety corner article, I discussed communication from the last rider in a group to indicate that this rider has merged out to change lanes and the others ahead also may merge, so a car doesnít break the group apart. "Merging" should go from the back to the front of the group. (But still, everyone should check before merging.) Commonly, a lead rider will call out "clear", and that is not good practice. Safety for the front rider to keep moving does not necessarily make it safe -- or legal --for the others.

When riding side by side, and you are the one on the left, keep track of traffic approaching from behind. Pulling ahead of the other rider usually works best when you have to single up, because you are giving the driver behind you a bit more time. So, announce "pulling ahead." You pull ahead and the other rider drops back slightly

Other than in these special situations, when you are riding next to someone, you may chat, give directions, warn about a hazard ahead -- but a friend of mine who has flown airplanes also applies the "silent cockpit" rule when driving his car -- no casual talk when the traffic situation is complicated. Use your judgment!

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