If you are riding a bicycle in New York City, the law requires a bicycle bell or horn and, after dusk, a red tail light. But not in Washington. We need to talk about this.
Why are New York City’s bicycle safety requirements more stringent than the District’s? Let’s start with the bicycle bell.
The District required a bicycle bell or horn until 2013. The D.C. Council changed the law on the recommendation of the District’s Bicycle Advisory Council. The bell was deemed by a council committee, in a report, as “unduly burdensome when a bicyclists can similarly alert others to their presence by using their own voice.”
Eliminating the bell law was reckless. How did lawmakers and bicycle advocates conclude that a bell is unduly burdensome? It deserved a public discussion it never received. The bell decision was part of the misnamed “Bicycle Safety Act of 2013.”
Under this new law, a bicyclist riding within the District must be capable of making a warning noise, “either with a bell or mechanical device, or with his or her voice, audible for a distance of at least one hundred feet (100 ft.).”
What does it mean to give an audible warning with your voice?
If you are on a bike lane or on a trail, a simple “on your left” may be enough when passing a fellow rider or jogger. But will this work in the District’s noisy and busy downtown?
A bicyclist crossing an intersection will be approaching pedestrians waiting to cross to the opposite corner. The pedestrians are likely looking ahead at the crosswalk signal. Meanwhile the bicycle rider may be in their peripheral vision. This is the point of danger.
The approaching bicyclists has to assume that the pedestrians can’t see him/her. There is a risk that someone will step off the curb. A warning is prudent. But what is the appropriate audible voice warning to this group? “Hello!” “Excuse me!” “Watch out!”
This assumes that the pedestrians understand English.
But if a bicyclists rings a bell, the pedestrians will likely hear it and know what it means.
Bicycle bells are in use worldwide and the law in many countries. Wherever you travel you will understand the bell’s meaning: Be alert. There’s no ambiguity.
A bell or horn can be engineered to be consistently heard 100 feet. Not so with the human voice. People may not even immediately realize you are addressing them.
The risks are growing. Along with more riders generally on District streets, bicycles are also getting more dangerous for pedestrians. Electric-assisted bikes are heavier and can operate at a maximum of 20 mph, five miles below the general District speed limit. With their extra weight, electric bikes can strike a pedestrian with far more force.
I contacted New York City officials about their bell and horn law. “When riding a bicycle in NYC it is required by law to have a bell installed to properly signal presence. Whistle, sirens or shouting is not sufficient,” wrote Luis Sanchez, Manhattan Borough Commissioner, in response to my query.
With early dusk, many bike commuters will use front lights, which are the law. Rear lights are optional but are often recommended in safety guides.
A 65-year old-woman was killed last year at a downtown Washington intersection after being involved in an accident with a bicyclists. According to The Post, the woman had stepped off a curb and was struck. Regardless of how this happened, it illustrates a real risk that we all need to be concerned about. But that’s not happening.
The District’s Bicycle Advisory Council failed in its responsibility to advocate for safety by recommending elimination of bell requirement. A human voice is no substitute to a mechanical warning in a crowded city. This council also needs to explain and defend — publicly — why it won’t recommend a red tail light law similar to New York City. It’s time to hold this group to account.