Monday, April 4, 2016

Traffic and Sound: Is reliance on hearing too heavy?

A couple of years ago, I was riding up a neighborhood street that happens to be a designated bicycle route in town. It has a bike lane that runs parallel to parked cars which can always be a bit precarious, but the street itself feels fairly narrow while riding and with cars driving by and parked to either side of the bike lane it can be more than a little unnerving while traveling through.
Normally when riding this street, cars are parked the entire way up the road. On the day of this photo, car parking was minimal, but it's easy to get a sense of how it feels traveling by a line of parked cars.
As I pedaled down the road, listening for cars coming from behind and trying to look through the rear glass of parked cars for people who may be preparing to exit their vehicle, I was shaken when the person in the car parked directly to my right suddenly swung the driver's side door open without warning. The window on the driver's side of the vehicle had been open, but I probably wasn't making enough noise for the individual to realize I was directly next to her.

Fortunately, as I had experienced similar circumstances in the past, my ninja (okay perhaps not very ninja) like reflexes caused me to veer out into the main lane to avoid getting struck by the door. By chance, there were no vehicles in the lane at that moment, for which I was thankful. The woman who had tossed her door open didn't even realize that she nearly missed throwing me from my bike and potentially injuring me.

At the time, I was very upset because I couldn't understand why she hadn't looked in her side view mirror before exiting the vehicle (at minimum), but I also had grown used to this habit of drivers, so at least I had enough awareness to narrowly avoid the situation.

In this instance, I didn't really think much about the circumstances, but was just annoyed and a bit angered by the situation. Since this incident though, I've experienced a number of both similar and dissimilar situations that have caused me to wonder if hearing is the sense many depend on the most in slow-moving traffic situations.
Just as one small example, a few months ago, I was traveling another city road that is also designated a bike route. This one has sharrows rather than a bike lane, but it is fairly well traveled by bicycles so I believe most people have some sense of awareness on this patch of roadway. In addition, motorized traffic speeds are slower, so generally (with the exception of perpendicular parked cars backing out without looking on occasion) I don't run into many problems.
Offices were not yet open when this photo was taken early one morning, but generally speaking there is a great deal of both motorized and pedestrian traffic in this area.
On this day, I was coming to a crosswalk just as a pedestrian was approaching the corner. I was well aware that I had enough time to get through the intersection prior to the individual stepping foot onto the street, but since he had his head down and was absorbed in whatever happenings were taking place on his phone, I knew I had better stop. As I sat waiting for him to cross the street, he suddenly looked up, startled to see someone. "I didn't even hear you," he said, as he passed in front of me.

Again, I didn't give it much thought at the time. After all, traffic is supposed to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, but the more I thought on the insignificant moment in time, I came to wonder if we humans are relying a bit too much on our sense of sound and not enough on visual and other information?

So many similar happenings have taken place over the years. A person is exiting a vehicle and opening the trunk of her car, only to be startled by my wheels spinning by a second later because she didn't bother to glance up; An individual sits with windows down in his car, looking to his left while waiting to make a right turn, but never looks to his right to notice that I'm sitting in the bike lane, waiting to cross the street. When he starts to make his turn and realizes I'm there, it's as though he's spotting an anomaly and generally responds with displaced anger.

While riding on well-traveled local roads, I have to wonder if humans are relying too much on one sense and not using a variety of these in order to make decisions. A simple turn of the neck or glance in a mirror could potentially save someone from injury, yet it almost seems as though the responsibility for safety falls to those on a bike. Which is not to say that every person on a bicycle is completely aware at all times either, but rather that since a bicycle makes little sound and most people seem to be listening for motorized traffic whether on foot or driving, the onus seems to frequently fall on people riding to remain aware of everything taking place around him/her.

When I was learning to drive as a teenager, my mother always referred to this idea as "defensive driving;" basically, having the awareness and ability to react to any situation or potential situation in traffic. It requires the use of multiple senses (and at times it feels even the use of sixth sense is needed). Because we don't always know what a person will do in a given situation, we prepare mentally to maneuver around a problem before it even happens, so that if/when it happens, we make the appropriate adjustments.

If many people are relying so heavily on the sense of sound, are we really behaving in a manner consistent with the idea of defensive driving (or walking, biking)?

Whether exiting a motorized vehicle or traveling on foot, a number of people seem to rely on their sense of sound above others. Perhaps this is a broad generalization, but in my experience to date, it seems to hold true in a number of instances. As soon as I started paying attention to the reasons behind these moments, I started to wonder if it truly is about hearing and sound being too heavily relied upon in traffic situations.

What do you think? Are our ears doing more of the work when on city streets and roadways? Have distractions lowered awareness when out in traffic (such as cell phones, iPods, etc), thus distracting our sense of sound to a greater degree? Is it a combination of factors, including the ever-increasing traffic on many streets? Feel free to share your experiences and what you believe to be contributing factors to close calls on streets.


  1. Please forgive me but I think you're barking up the wrong tree. People are not relying more on their ears but simply being less attentive, more wrapped up in their own worlds. If anything, they are using and relying on their physical senses LESS not more. This is exactly why they are startled when they look up and say "you came out of nowhere" or similar.

    Lots and lots of articles, studies and blogs on this very topic. I'll see about digging out some links for you.

    1. There is a great deal of inattentiveness, I would agree. I suppose I am curious if because of the distractions people are using, sounds are kind of a default to determine what is going on around (and even that isn't used very well). As Kendra pointed out below, so many people have earbuds in (even while driving) that they couldn't possibly be listening for much, so it's entirely plausible that I am completely off. I suppose it's also possible that there is a lazy way of using hearing and if sounds don't fall into a default area in traffic then any differentiation becomes a surprise (which would certainly fall into inattentiveness or distracted driving).

      I think what I'm discovering is that people are using sounds as their gauge for what is happening around them... and they're not even using sound to the best of its potential. It almost seems to be a fall back rather than using everything together to assess situations.

      Feel free to link any studies/articles you would like as well. Always nice to have extra info to share. :)

  2. I agree with Rebecca: People seem less attentive to their surroundings than they used to be. I think a lot of this has to do with the prevalence of mobile phones. I find that a lot of pedestrians are looking at their phones and wearing ear buds, so they aren't looking or listening. Drivers also seem to be caught up in their own worlds too and not paying attention. Cyclists certainly aren't exempt, though I do find far fewer cyclists using technology while riding than I do motorists or pedestrians.

    I'm not anti-technology by any stretch of the imagination. I'm an active user of both a smart phone and a tablet, but I am amazed at how many people are absorbed by those little screens all the time.

    1. I think having mobile phones has been both a great tool and one of the worst nightmares of this generation of the human population. It's great to have information at our fingertips, but not everyone uses it responsibly, which is unfortunate.

      I agree that cyclists are definitely not exempt from being caught up in their own "stuff." Even if not using head/ear devices or a phone, it's easy to get lost in a thought (similarly to a person driving) and then forget to pay attention or miss traffic signs/signals.

  3. Good post and it's good for cyclists to have this discussion.

    I have this recurring conversation with myself when I ride. I tell myself, when I see all kinds of nonsense actions by drivers, that if I was to explain myself to the driver of a car - I'd have to tell them my life depends on figuring everyone behind the wheel is either an idiot or an A-hole, or both. That I will end up in the hospital or worse, if I assume otherwise.

    This goes for the drivers that throw their car doors open in front of me. I've had maybe a hundred close calls - where the door was flung open without looking. (One time a driver did catch me with his door.)

    Pedestrians, are just as bad. Whether it is looking at their smartphones, or talking and not paying attention. I notice you say pedestrians in a crosswalk have the right of way. Yep, that is true - but most feel it applies anywhere. Even when they are jaywalking. They will get a lesson in the law if they get hit.

    I have to agree about the reliance on hearing. I think many rely on whether they hear a car coming. If they don't hear anything, they don't bother to look. Not a good idea, as I guarantee I can flatten a pedestrian if they step in front of me on my bike. I mean, they will end up in the hospital if I hit them even going 10 mph. That plus they need to think about all the electric cars on the road today.

    All of this has made me a huge advocate for a good bike bell. I've noticed pedestrians and drivers respond a lot better to a bell than unintelligible words like "on your left" or "passing". The cyclists words seem to get lost to the wind. In fact, I've noticed pedestrians tend to turn around when they hear words from behind - which can make matters worse. It's too bad, because many American cyclists seem to feel bells are un-cool. Maybe because they associate them with cheap bikes for children. It does not need to be like that, with some excellent bells by Crane, Origin8 and Spurcycles on the market.

    So these days, I am ringing my bell frequently. As I approach a pedestrian or pass a cyclist, of course. But also as I approach a parked car with a driver inside. I try to present a friendly sounding "ding, ding", I can assure you it helps!

    1. So true... many pedestrians seem to like to dart out into traffic without warning (and without a crosswalk), and when they aren't paying attention (or are listening for motorized traffic) it can definitely be startling (to say the least) or potentially devastating.

      I like having a bike bell, too. I try to use it in combination with some sort of greeting, but I find the bell is often more effective than words.

      About 4 years ago, I was riding down one of our multi-use paths in town and there was an older woman walking to the right. I didn't want to scare her, so I slowed down quite a bit and was barely moving as I went by her. As I was approaching, I rang the bell and announced, "Good morning! I'm passing on your left." As I rolled by, she said in a perturbed tone, "It would be nice if you'd say 'On your left!'" I desperately wanted to about face and inform her that I'd done just that, but it wasn't worth arguing about. I don't exactly have a soft spoken voice either, so I was surprised at her response to me.

      I have found a similar occurrence when announcing myself to pedestrians - they almost always want to turn around (or move in the wrong direction), which again can create some problems. Not being able to see if they have headphones on or not is also an issue, so I've come to the point that I generally slow down to a snail's pace so as to not create any problems when passing. Generally this works, but not always.

    2. Ah, another bell ringer - we are far and few between!

      I think we are conditioned to want to communicate with words. We tend to feel words will be better received than the ring of a bell, which some interpret as only once removed from a horn honk. Especially for those of us that live "out West" or in relatively remote areas - where horn honking is often considered "aggressive". As an aside, I had a colleague from New York City once explain to me that in the City, a horn honk is usually taken as a friendly hello. That's not how how a honk is taken in many parts out West.

      Back to the cyclist. What sounds like words that are clearly spoken to us on our bikes are more often than not, are simply not clear to the recipient. Whether it is the wind, or Doppler Effect, or whatever, those words are typically not heard by others like we intend. Unless everyone is at a standstill, I don't think we can expect our voices to be heard like we want.

      I have had cyclists pass me on my bike numerous times and their utterances - no matter how well-meaning - are simply not intelligible. Blame my old age, blame my bad hearing, blame what you will. The end result is the same.

      I find the bike bell carries a clear message and in my experience, the voice simply does not.

    3. I don't think it's age at all - I think, as you've stated, the words just aren't heard as easily when both parties are traveling. The only way it has worked for me is if both parties are traveling at about the same speed - and even then it can be questionable.

      Just about a week ago, I was riding on a path in town. Two ladies had been walking directly toward me (at that point we were about a half a football field apart from each other), when they suddenly turned around and decided to take a different path back in the direction they'd originally come from. A few seconds later, I was naturally right behind them. I hadn't expected them to be as startled as they were when I announced my presence. Apparently they hadn't seen me at all, or perhaps it just didn't register that we were now going in the same direction and I would catch up with them quickly. In this instance, I didn't ring the bell because I thought for sure they had known I was there, but I suppose looking back on it, the bell probably should've been my go-to regardless.

  4. Yes! I love bike bells. I think when we call out "on your left" all they hear is "something something LEFT!" Once I was coming up behind an older couple on the path. I rang my bell, and the woman turned to look, then turned to her parter and said "that's so much better than when they yell at us." That made me laugh.

    1. That could very well be true, Kendra, particularly as I seem to notice many people move to their left instead of the right when saying this phrase.

      I giggled out loud at your encounter. Sometimes a bell is my first response and other times it is not, but I find that the bell almost always causes the reaction I hope for - the pedestrian moving to the right - and often without them even turning around at all. I think with older folks, sometimes it's a lot easier for them to hear the bell and understand than to try and have a conversation with someone who is speeding by too.

  5. I would agree with those who say that people are more inattentive nowadays. I've almost hit a pedestrian who simply decided that her phone was more interesting than looking out for traffic. I was out for a longer early morning ride the other day, and decided that when I saw someone who might not be expecting a bike rider, I would simply sing at a very audible volume. It worked well with the two people I saw; well, my singing probably disturbed them, but it was better than having an accident.

    1. That's an interesting way to handle traffic, too. I may try the singing route one of these days to see how that does. As you said, maybe just the singing itself will disturb the person enough to catch his/her attention. :)


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