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.

Justin Foell

About Justin Foell

Justin is an aspiring urbanist stuck in suburbia. He enjoys cycling, beer, yo-yos, computers, and other geekery. Closet railfan.