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Bike-Safety Gear: See, Be Seen, and Heard

Alum designs car horn for bicycles

Jonathan Lansey, Loud Bicycle car horn for cyclists, cycling accessories, bike safefty gear gadgets

Biker and engineer Jonathan Lansey (GRS’10) with Loud Bicycle, a bike horn that sounds like a car horn. Photo courtesy of Lansey

Biking 17 miles round-trip every day from Medford to his job in Woburn, Jonathan Lansey has his share of close calls. Particularly on long stretches of suburban highway, drivers often seem oblivious to his presence. As a research engineer who’s paid to solve problems, Lansey (GRS’10) decided to tackle this one, and came up with Loud Bicycle, a car horn for cyclists. Now in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to get the horns manufactured, Lansey has been road-testing the prototype and has found that the sound often stops cars in their tracks.

In the wake of five bicycle fatalities in Boston this year, including the recent deaths of two Boston University student cyclists in incidents on or near Commonwealth Avenue, concerns about safety are urgent. Between January 1 and November 13, 2012, Boston Emergency Medical Services responded to 579 bicycle-related incidents. It’s dangerous out there, but as habitual bikers like Lansey know, even the most vigilant and cautious bikers can benefit from gear that makes them easier to be seen and heard, by both drivers and pedestrians.

“I get cut off by drivers, and people pull right into me,” says Lansey, who is conservative about horn use, but ends up blasting it at least once during a commute. “I was surprised at how effective it is. Cars react without even looking. They immediately respond by braking.” He adds that he can see confusion and “maybe a little guilt” on the faces of drivers who might not have seen him and who certainly didn’t expect the horn sound to come from a bike.

bike lights at Landry's Bicycles Commonwealth Ave, bike safety gear, cycling accessories

Bike lights come in a wide range of types and cost from around $10 to as much as $700. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

As an alternative to existing, often-feeble bike horns and even feebler bells, Loud Bicycle could save lives, Lansey hopes. It already may have saved him from a collision, at the very least. “One time I was biking along and focusing on the car to my right, which had its blinker on, and I didn’t see this guy who was making a left turn from the right lane, to cut across me,” he says. “This was at night. I honked, and he braked. I was really shaken up; it’s likely that I would’ve been hit.”

Lansey says drivers react to car horns before they even know where the sound is coming from. A motorist who gets beeped at while backing out of a driveway, for example, will immediately brake. He is counting on these kinds of reflexive reactions to keep cyclists safe.

“I like the idea of having the choice of a bell (for a friendly reminder/passing pedestrians) and a real horn, for when a car is neglecting traffic laws and is about to hit me,” a BU student commented on Lansey’s Kickstarter site. “A bell there just doesn’t seem to cut it.”

safety light straps at Landrys Bicycles Boston, bike safety gear, cycling accessories, night riding

An inexpensive way to boost road visibility, safety light straps attach around arms or legs. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

As he navigates through more populated areas, Lansey also never underestimates the power of yelling. As for other horns, he’s a fan of AirZound, a compressed air horn, with several models, selling for $30 to $36. The device has a volume control switch, and because it uses an air canister, requires no batteries. The canister can be refilled with a bicycle pump. The 115-decibel AirZound was developed in the United Kingdom by a 30-mile-a-day bike commuter (dump “that pathetic bell now,” its website urges). “The downside,” says Lansey, is that although it has around the same decibel level, “it doesn’t sound quite like a car. It sounds like a really high-pitched whistle, and you can only honk it for about two seconds.” Loud Bicycle can sustain a 30-second honk, although Lansey says he can’t imagine honking the horn for that long.

At Landry’s Bicycles on Comm Ave, the selection of bike horns runs from vintage-looking bells ranging from $9 to $12 to a shiny handlebar-mounted bugle that parents buy for $19 for their young kids. “Bells are good; you get out of Fenway Park and work your way through the crowds with that ring-ding-ding,” says Landry’s manager Mark Vautour. But he adds that mostly, under those conditions, “I just yell at people.”

For lights, the other crucial safety gear, bikers have many more options. Bike lights can cost up to $700. “We have lights that would cook a chicken,” says Vautour, who has worked at Landry’s for 16 years. “When you’re shopping for a bike light, you have to ask yourself, do you want to see or be seen? Around BU the streets are well lit, so in the city you want to be seen.”

Mark Vautour, Manager, Landry's Bicycles Boston

Mark Vautour, manager of Landry’s Bicycles on Comm Ave, displays one of a range of front-mounted lights for night biking. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Vautour is adamant that city bikers not venture out after dark without front and rear lights, at the very least. (Bikers not concerned about the extra weight can attach colored lights to their wheel spokes, and clip-on lights are great for outerwear and backpacks.) “You need working lights,” he says, noting that if a driver’s car lights don’t work, they will be pulled over by police. Lights should be considered essential for bikes, too. Landry’s carries front-mounted lights, which cost $350 and $500 and can light up trails for backcountry mountain bikers. For city biking, his favorite is the rechargeable Lumina 500 Night Rider, which costs $110. Basic rear lights begin at $13, and for around $40 you can buy a battery-powered front and rear light set. Vautour neither recommends nor sells lights charged by minigenerators powered by the cyclist himself. “Generator lights are never bright enough,” he says. And even though it’s not a huge problem in Boston, lights are sometimes stolen. “When you park the bike, take the light with you,” he says. “That’s just part of reality.”

For an additional investment of $18, cyclists can increase their visibility with safety light straps that can be used on arms or legs. A big seller at Landry’s, the straps, made by Planet Bike, run on an LED battery and are visible up to 2,000 feet.

Also kicking around on the internet is a trend of painting entire bikes so they glow in the dark. Vautour hasn’t seen much evidence of this locally. But on an instructables.com tutorial involving phosphorescent paint, the creator says, “I feel much safer riding in the dark. Cars are able to spot me from quite a far distance…Safety and style…it’s a win-win.”

19 Comments
Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

19 Comments on Bike-Safety Gear: See, Be Seen, and Heard

  • Renaldo on 12.12.2012 at 7:02 am

    I used to think there was a difference between “seeing and being seen” on a bike when it came to lights, but after several years of urban night riding it’s clear that using an inexpensive light to “be seen” is wishful thinking and a waste of money. When competing with so many other light sources, a little ‘warning’ light of 100 lumens or less is useless. If you’re going to ride at night, don’t even consider anything less than 300 lumens, and that’s just a minimum (recommended would be 400-600 lumens). To put things in perspective, my light is 1800 lumens, which makes it almost as bright as a car light. They’re expensive, but well worth the investment.

  • Barbara on 12.12.2012 at 9:11 am

    There are some pretty cool glow-in-the-dark wheelsets out there. Pure Fix Cycles in San Fran has them if you’re looking to modify your bike, http://www.pfcycles.com.

    Non-verbal communication and the use of proper signalization is key. Acknowledgement of all who use the roadways is free.

  • Doug on 12.12.2012 at 10:08 am

    Also look seriously at another kickstarter project, Blaze, at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/embrooke/blaze-bike-light?ref=live

    This bike light projects an image of a bike rider on the road out in from of you so drivers and pedestrians can see where you are going to be. Check the above link out to see it in action. Definitely a better mousetrap!

  • Dan on 12.12.2012 at 10:50 am

    Most Important Safety Point: Know and follow the rules of the road.

    I know it sound trite, but . . . . . following the rules of the road is the most effective way of staying alive irrespective of all the cool equipment.

    See MassBike @ ‘http://massbike.org/’ – An organization devoted to safe biking in Massachusetts, and is devoted to knowing, broadcasting, and following the rules of the road.

    And courtesy is contagious.

    • Susan Foster on 12.12.2012 at 1:18 pm

      Agree – to a point. There seems to be no evidence that the cyclist killed last week on Comm Ave wasn’t following the “rules of the road” – he was in a bike lane, and apparently with a green light ahead of him. Just for some reason didn’t see the semi about to turn in front of him. So rules of the road, yes, but constant vigilance and high visibility even better. And no distractions- no earbuds, etc.

      • Dan on 12.12.2012 at 4:40 pm

        Susan, I am not casting aspersions on anyone, and there is no golden answer; just some thoughts. I suppose I could add ‘and watch where you are going’; that sounds even worse. File that under constant vigilance and high visibility? Generally we agree. Thanks.

  • M on 12.12.2012 at 11:19 am

    All these ideas are so awesome: the horm and the bike light that cast an image in front. Hopefully, his funding goal would be reach. Wishing you the best of luck! Happy biking everyone :)

  • Jose on 12.12.2012 at 12:25 pm

    Boston Bikes has partnered with different bike shops in the area to provide riders with 15% off any bicycle light or combination front/rear set until December 31st, to help with the visibility of cyclists.

    Cyclist can print “Be Bright” coupon card at:

    “Be Bright” info coupon: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151306796778245&set=pb.66605578244.-2207520000.1355332487&type=3&theater

    “Be Bright” List of bike shops participating: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151306796813245&set=pb.66605578244.-2207520000.1355332487&type=3&theater

    For more info visit, http://www.bostonbikes.org/2012/11/boston-bikes-wants-you-to-be-bright/

  • LP on 12.12.2012 at 1:17 pm

    The last things we need is more noise pollution in this city.

  • Nathan on 12.12.2012 at 2:53 pm

    Aggressive honking is the solution? Really!!

    If Mr. Lansey needs to use his horn once per commute, he is either:
    A) Bicycling in unsafe conditions, or
    B) using his horn inappropriatly.

    If I were an insurance company, I would not insure his life and health – Jonathan Lanssy is living on borrowed time.

    • RT on 12.12.2012 at 3:43 pm

      Cars constantly cut bicyclists off regardless of where they are. Your comment was groundless and not based in any sort of reality.

    • Borrowed time? on 12.12.2012 at 3:55 pm

      The above comment is absolutely absurd. Loudbicycle.com clearly spells out all of the details for why these particular horns are needed — and this is not because Lansey is a reckless cyclist or “using his horn inappropriately” as indicated by point (B) of your post. Even if we assert your point (A), this does not solve any problems. Biking in Boston is extremely dangerous even in “safe” conditions. Now, drivers are not always–and often not exclusively–at fault, but let’s be a little more reasonable here. As it stands, your comment is extremely unhelpful. If you have sound criticism to offer, why don’t you do so on the Loud Bikes webpage? I am sure Lansey would appreciate helpful feedback, positive or negative.

      At any rate, Lansey is not advocating “aggressive honking” but defensive honking. Surely, you can discern the difference between these two. For every cyclist who uses the horn inappropriately, there will be many more who will use it with discretion (i.e., when necessary — even if that IS once every commute), and it will certainly help prevent serious and possibly fatal accidents.

      Having an effective safety device for alerting drivers is very much needed in this over-crowded, poorly planned city. Bravo to Lansey and his team.

      • Nathan on 12.12.2012 at 4:39 pm

        So we agree…
        Bicycling in Boston is dangerous.

        Based on my walking and driving in dozens of cities in America, bicycling in Biostin is, in my opinion EXCESSIVELY dangerous.

        Using his horn will help. Given his observation that drivers react without thinking, it may at some point, save a bicyclists life AND cause a motor vehivle to motor vehicle accident or motor vehicle to pedestrian accident.

        A horn, no matter how effective, is a band-aid solution.

        I believe a horn gives Mr. Lanskey MORE safety, but not enough for Boston. He obviously believes differently. I hope he and others don’t die because of the risks they take – but I am sure would you agree he would be safer in a car, a bus, a train, or telecommuting.

        I AM NOT advocating giving up on bicycling, but the failure to assess risks correctly leads to needless death – which is why I wouldn’t insure his life.

        Feel free to hate the messanger (me,) but ignore the message at your peril.

        • Borrowed time? (2) on 12.12.2012 at 5:42 pm

          I’m not “hat[ing] the messenger.” I was commenting on the lack of substance in your original post.

          Your most recent post is a little more informative and, consequently, more helpful.

          But I do think you are over-stating things, nevertheless:

          (1) “Given [Lansey's] observation that drivers react without thinking, it may at some point, save a bicyclists life AND cause a motor vehivle to motor vehicle accident or motor vehicle to pedestrian accident.”

          This is an unsupported claim. Lansey’s test runs, while an insufficient sample size, do not report any dangerous confusion, and this is a better indicator than your baseless concern. What you are suggesting is a grossly exaggerated possibility, and points more to a criticism of automobile drivers’ abilities to drive defensively.

          (2a) “A horn, no matter how effective, is a band-aid solution.”

          and,

          (2b) “I believe a horn gives Mr. Lanskey MORE safety, but not enough for Boston. He obviously believes differently.”

          Lansey’s horn is not a solution and I am sure he knows that. It certainly is _not_ “obvious” that he believes otherwise; your suggestion is uncharitable.

          There can be no panacea when it comes to biking in Boston; the only measure that could even approach this lofty and unrealistic standard would be to install protected bike lanes — but we’ll see if that ever happens. But all of the methods described in the article above go a long way toward helping improve the safety of biking, more so if used in combination.

          Lastly,

          (3) “[T]he failure to assess risks correctly leads to needless death – which is why I wouldn’t insure his life.”

          This contention is needless and damages some of the more constructive feedback you have given. Risk assessment requires prudence, and the cyclists in Boston who are making use of safety devices and following the rules of the road are cycling prudently.

          If you are not advocating “giving up on bicycling,” I am not sure what your intention is with your comments. Giving up cycling in Boston, specifically? You will have to provide better argumentation if this is the case.

        • ML on 12.13.2012 at 6:23 am

          I strongly second Nathan’s risk assessment statement.

          It’s dangerous enough with a current (5y) model urban-oriented bike. A fixie or 80s Panasonic with original brake pads? Even worse.

          Here’s my gear list:
          2 × high power LED rear flashers, one on the back of the helmet, one on the bike frame (backpack mounts are worthless because of the angle).
          1 × Helmet mounted light, with at least a 1W LED, so drivers can know your vision vector. Cheap tip: skip the bike shop, go to the hardware store and get a miner type headlight, they can run as low as $10; just adjust the straps to fit over your helmet.
          2 × Ankle reflector strips, put the reflective spots at extremities with maximum visual movement that also help define the boundaries of your space.
          2 × Wrist reflector strips or gloves with reflector.
          1 × helmet-mounted mirror: http://www.3rd-eye.com/
          1 × As much reflective material as possible: http://www.bikeradar.com/gear/category/clothing/jackets/product/review-altura-night-vision-evo-jacket-10-37845

          1 × Brakes with great emergency control, as in mountain bike-style long cable pull handles, disc rotors. Ride with left hand (front) off the handle, right brake (rear) on the handle, practice mountain-bike-style emergency stops: 1) Squeeze rear brake, 2) shift weight behind seat, 3) squeeze front brake. 4) avoid locking up wheels (fixies & coaster brakes); it is very much possible to stop a bike from 20MPH in 20 feet (a regular cab Ford F-150 is about 18 ft long)

          Most critical: a Laser-sharp sense of situational awareness
          - Watch parallel parked cars for brake lights, startup lights, lateral moving (weight of someone getting in or out
          - Use that helmet mounted mirror to scan what’s behind you, at least the angle from directly behind to say, 45° left of rear.
          - A bell is a courtesy to pedestrians. Cars deserve yelling, and sometimes punching/slapping.
          - Be aware of the visibility zones of drivers; pedestrians do this stupid thing to drivers where they assume that you can see them because they’re looking at your car. If you’re looking at the A-pillar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pillar_%28automobile%29) and can’t see the driver’s eyes, the driver can’t see you; air drag, rolling friction, torque, reverse thrust, and physics will decelerate the car; your dirty glance will not.

      • Jonathan Lansey on 12.12.2012 at 5:11 pm

        Thanks for the good discussion,

        The 8.5 miles each way of my commute heads way out to Woburn and I rarely see another bicycle. I signal and follow all traffic laws. The vast majority of drivers are very alert and considerate but I do use the horn on average about once to prevent an emergency.

  • Boston Phoenix on 12.12.2012 at 9:54 pm

    As someone who bikes to and from work from my home in StuVi2, I have to say that there are idiot bikers and idiot drivers out there every single day. No means of protection is foolproof (even in a passenger vehicle), but having a horn, helmet, etc. can only help. My favorite sentence though is “As he navigates through more populated areas, Lansey also never underestimates the power of yelling”. Yelling at cars cutting across lanes of traffic has saved me from being hit on multiple occasions. I think a horn only makes sense and hurts nobody.

  • led tail lights on 12.13.2012 at 4:58 am

    Based on my walking and driving in dozens of cities in America, bicycling in Biostin is, in my opinion EXCESSIVELY dangerous.

  • MMacD on 03.28.2013 at 7:58 am

    I cycle for utility rather than commuting or sport. When I cycle in Cambridge and Boston especially, it makes me crazy to see other cyclists (usually uni students by their looks) with no safety equipment blitzing through red lights, cursing cagers, and generally acting as though they own the roads and have a paper in their pocket guaranteeing that they’ll live forever. They get where they’re going far faster than I do, I’m sure, but they harm other cyclists by their immature behavior. One of these days I expect to roll up to find one of them the center of attention under somebody’s wheels.

    My kit: a 29yo road/25yo offroad bike for summer and winter respectively, an ANSI II reflective vest (mesh fabric for summer ventilation), a 29yo Bell helmet (the first to be ANSI cert’d) with a Taka-a-Look mirror and, velcro’d to the back of the shell, a Cygolite set on rapid flash. A Philips SafeRide headlight that doesn’t shine into oncomer’s eyes (~300 lumens, but as effective as 1000), and 2 Serfas taillights set on flash on the rear rack.

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