Bells & Whistles

I love the civility and safety that a bell and whistle, respectively, convey. Then there’s the horn. A multi-tasking device that seems to only do one thing well: annoy.

MN Statute 169.68 – The Horn

(a) [...] The driver of a motor vehicle shall, when reasonably necessary to insure safe operation, give audible warning with the horn, but shall not otherwise use the horn when upon a highway.

Where exactly “upon a highway” applies is probably debatable, but one thing is for sure: Minnesotans do not use their horns like they do on the east coast. Out east, they use their horns to “communicate.” They don’t honk at you to go, they honk to make sure you’re ready to go. Or they could be saying “Hey there, I see you walking across on a red up ahead. Just want to make sure you’ll be clear by the time I arrive at the intersection.”

It turns out that legally, Minnesotans “shall not otherwise” be afforded these luxury communications. Besides, unless you drive an exotic, car horns are loud and obnoxious.

So let’s take a cue from my favorite modes of transportation: bike and train. Trains have been employing whistles since 1832. Some railroaders still call the modern train horn a “whistle” for historical purposes. The bell followed shortly after, becoming standard equipment in 1840. I like to think the bell was added because the passengers waiting on the platform couldn’t hear themselves think when the train rolled in blaring the whistle. A bell is civilized, humane, and musical. It says “I’m here, be careful” in a delightful way.

Bicycle Bells & Horns

Bicycles have also been equipped with bells going back to 1877, probably earlier. In Minnesota, it’s not compulsory to use a bell or horn on a bike:

(e) It is permissible, but not required, for a bicycle to be equipped with a horn or bell designed to alert motor vehicles, other bicycles, and pedestrians of the bicycle’s presence.

But having (and using) a bell sure helps. A bike without a bell is like a burger without cheese – it works, but it’s not as functional or enjoyable. However, the bell alone doesn’t really cut it. With most normal bike horns being the equivalent of a clown horn, many cyclist just resort to yelling. There’s the Airzound, but I would have to remember to charge it before every ride and if I ever did sound it, I’m afraid my noise-averse son would jump right out of his bicycle seat.

So we need a better bike horn, but more importantly…

Car Horns (and Bells?)

Why not invent a device for the automobile that can say “hey I see you there” without implying “I’m a total maniac, get out of my way!” Well, sadly it seems many states, including Minnesota, reserve the right for bells to only reside upon emergency vehicles:

(b) A vehicle must not be equipped with, and a person shall not use upon a vehicle, any siren, whistle, or bell [...]

Back in the day, a bell may have been the standard noise-maker for a fire-engine, but today sirens are the norm and I think any emergency vehicle that employed a bell would be laughed out of town. So rather than reserve the right, let’s give it back to the rest of Motordom to see if they can learn to communicate more civilly to the vulnerable users they’re supposedly sharing the road with.


Streets.mn is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

8 Responses to Bells & Whistles

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke May 1, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

    I have bells on almost all my bikes, and like to use them to alert peds to their impending doom. The only problem is that many joggers etc are blasting headphones and don’t hear bells any more.

    I also ring bells at kids on bikes when I see them. Bells are fun.

  2. hokan May 1, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    I don’t know why you say bells are illegal when you quote the section that makes them legal on bicycles.

    This section was just updated last year thanks to the work of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota. ‘Till then bells were not permitted on bikes in Minnesota.

    Locally, bells are required on Minneapolis Park property.

  3. Justin Foell
    Justin Foell May 1, 2014 at 4:05 pm #

    If I go for a bike ride with my son, we’re decidedly doing it wrong if we haven’t rung the bell a few times :)

    hokan – it’s currently illegal to install a bell on a vehicle that is not a: 1) emergency vehicle, 2) bicycle. I’m wondering aloud if allowing bells on cars would make our vehicular communications friendlier.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke May 1, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

      Once i was biking along the UMN transitway and one of the UMN buses was approaching me from behind and had this soft little bell noise that it used to alert me to my impending doom.

      I really like it, but that was only one time and I’ve never heard it again. Sometimes they honk. Mostly they just buzz by without warning, and occasionally at very short distances.

      • Justin Foell
        Justin Foell May 2, 2014 at 11:08 am #

        I like how big-rig trucks have a pressure sensitive horn that can give a small “toot” or a blaring roar.

        I wish there was some sort of friendly human-scale warning system like the bus bell you mentioned that could be the norm and not the exception.

  4. Walker Angell
    Walker May 2, 2014 at 7:49 am #

    Bells are wonderful. Much better than an angry derogatory ‘on your left’ that too often results in people stepping to their left.

    Now if we can just get people to keep right on paths unless they’re passing someone or riding side-by-side with a friend (and only wear one ear so they can hear people behind them).

    • Justin Foell
      Justin Foell May 2, 2014 at 11:14 am #

      Yeah, even lycra clad hard core roadies can (and should) participate in bell ringing: IncrediBell. It fits dura-ace hardware, so no excuses! That road bell has a cutesy high-pitch. It’s sort of quaint, like the horn on an old Ferrari.

      • Walker Angell
        walker May 2, 2014 at 12:28 pm #

        It’s not unusual for even protour teams to use bells while training. We once heard a bell behind us on a path in The Netherlands and it was BMC.