In my experience, the strain of road rage that afflicts cyclists is entirely unlike that of motorists: easy though it may be to satirize or dismiss our sense of self-righteousness, the underlying truth is that cars are still king, and regular riders learn to grow a thick skin when it comes to sharing the road, where they are quite literally marginalized (on streets without bike lanes). Between the legal system's troubling aversion to holding drivers responsible for their (at times fatal) actions and the countless close calls that happen every day, entrepreneurial cyclists are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.
We've seen plenty of illumination and visibility solutions in the past, but Boston-based research engineer Jonathan Lansey saw an opportunity to fill a metaphorical blind spot for urban cyclists. Thus, the successfully Kickstarted LOUD Bicycle Horn affords cyclists a nonvisual cue on par with those of automobiles:
As usual, I have a few thoughts on the project... but first, here's Lansey in his own words:
About a year and a half ago a friend was hit by a car that was making a left hand turn. The driver was distracted by a loud radio and didn't hear my friend screaming. She was lucky, and wasn't injured very seriously, but I thought that we shouldn't have to rely on luck when faced with life-threatening situations. Drivers recognize car horns and react really well to them so it just makes a lot of sense to have a car horn fit for bicycles.
The horn has both a high note and a low note which together makes it sound exactly like a car. Its easy to install and security bolts make it difficult to steal. The battery pack is small and light, but so powerful that a single charge will keep you honking for one to two months. The trigger snaps on to either handlebar and honking does not interfere with steering or braking.
Our horns work so well because drivers react to the familiar sound of a car horn incredibly fast, their ears are tuned to pick out the sound above the bustle of noisy roads. The modulated two note sound is more attention-getting than steady-state sounds.
Existing bike horns do work a fair amount of the time, but you wouldn't want to rely on them in any kind of emergency situation. They typically have extremely high frequencies which are harsh on the ears and people often can't even tell where the sound comes from. Zoe Williams from the Guardian tried one existing horn and wrote that when pedestrians hear the horn "they look for it in totally the wrong direction, often upwards." Auditory illusions like these are caused by the limited range of frequencies that cheap air horns and piezoelectrics can produce.
Grabbing a driver's attention quickly is really important, if they brake for even a half second, that can increase your chance of surviving an accident by 60%. This means that having a Loud Bicycle horn on your bike can drastically improve safety in a way that just isn't possible with other bicycle horns.
As Lansey quipped to Wired: "Our mechanical engineer is in NJ so the final designs were actually emailed to Boston—then printed here in less time than it would have taken to have made a trip down."
Regarding road rage and the risk of abusing the horn, Lansey is confident that "people serious enough about cycling to buy one of our horns are already more concerned about the urban environment than an average motorist." He also advises users not to honk at other cyclists, pedestrians or while on a bicycle path: "In these cases a shout or bell is usually enough to get someones attention and it is far more pleasant and polite." (I can't help but imagine an ideal world in which car horns emit a pleasant chime instead of the opposite case, where cyclists have to resort to a strident honk...)
One of our backers Calvin Bean actually said it best: The Loud Bicycle horn should be used "If someone is about to encroach on my space and endanger my life .... It's all about getting people in motor vehicles to snap out of their fog & stop what they're about to do." As a cyclist you are often trying to avoid being hit by cars veering into your path. These are the cars you would need to honk at.
And while the device is intended to be a last resort for cyclists, Lansey is pleased to share positive feedback from not only cyclists but drivers as well:
So far reactions from drivers have been positive, one man actually rolled down his window to thank me. He had been swerving into the bike lane while texting. Nobody wants to hit a bike. When drivers hear my car horn they know a crash is imminent; when they brake and watch me pass by they are relieved not angry.
Indeed, early reports have been unanimously positive—Yahoo even called on Lansey to share his crowdfunding tips—but I find myself ambivalent about the product. Although I agree that the benefits of the horn outweigh the hypothetical drawbacks, I can't help but feel that the fact that the LOUD Bicycle Horn actually exists somehow seems like a concession to this country's car culture (I highly doubt that the project has any Danish takers). Practical and effective though it may be, the subtext of such a radically defensive measure is that it will get worse before it gets better. Its existence reflects the sad reality that drivers are too important, distracted or outright oblivious to be bothered with other road users, that it is invariably the cyclist's responsibilty to heed automobile traffic and never the other way around (I'll stop short of invoking the helmet debate).
Granted, the root of the issue is the fundamental disparity between the automobile and the bicycle, a topic I explored in an essay last year, and I understand that the utopian notion of efficient, sustainable, frictionless transportation and infrastructure for everyone is still a long ways away. Let's just say that I'm of the opinion that a well-tuned bike is a silent bike—the ratcheting sound of a freewheel notwithstanding—and that there is a Zen-like bliss to hearing nothing but the hum of the road beneath your tires.
In fairness to Lansey, the LOUD Bicycle Horn doesn't detract from the quintessential joy of riding a bicycle, and we wish him the best of luck with the project. After all, no cyclist actually wants to be in a situation where they'll need to use it—the same goes for helmets—but the platitude stands true: better safe than sorry. Beyond the immediate goal of delivering horns to their backers, Lansey and co. eventually hope to offer the LOUD Bicycle Horn to retailers, and he says that smaller, lighter models are also in the works. In the meantime, early adopters have about three more days to get their hands on the pre-order for $95.