- by David Halfpenny
- Published: 23 August 2012
“Sorry mate, I didn’t see you” is such a common excuse that it’s an internationally recognised acronym now – SMIDSY. No matter how many lights, reflectors or high-vis jerseys you have, some people will (by ignorance or design) never see you. Cyclists aren’t the only ones who suffer from this problem, emergency vehicles do as well. At least, they would if the only thing going for them was their lights. Often the first we know of an emergency vehicle coming near us is when we hear it. So, how do you make your bike heard on the road? Allow me to introduce you to the Hornit.
The Hornit is a battery powered warning device that mounts on your handlebars and is triggered via a pressure switch that you can mount close to your hand grips. On your bars it looks a lot like many front lights, which is to say it doesn’t look out of place on a recreational or commuter bike. It runs on 2 AAA batteries and weighs, all up, about 100g. The main unit is easily removable from the mount (well, easily with a little bit of practice) and is just as easily reattached. So, as far as commuter utility is concerned, the Hornit ticks all of the required boxes. I’m saying all of this about the Hornit to get the basics out of the way before I get down to what I really want to say: the Hornit is loud.
When I say the Hornit is loud, you really don’t get a good idea of what I’m talking about. If I put “loud” in all-caps, it would visually represent some sort of loudness, but still wouldn’t get the idea across. Likewise, if I told you that the Hornit’s loud mode is 140 dB and its soft mode is 130 dB, that would be just numbers. So what I’ll do is get you to imagine a car coming up behind you while you’re riding and giving you a blast on their horn. If you have ever ridden on the road, you’ll know what I mean. Now double that loudness. That’s loud, right? Good, now double it again. Wow! Pretty good, eh? That’s the Hornit’s soft mode and also the threshold of pain. Now double it yet again and you’ll have the Hornit in loud mode – 8 times louder than a normal car horn. The manufacturers claim it’s the loudest bike horn in the world and I’m not going to argue with that.
So, it’s loud. Very loud. Very, very, very loud. Very, very, very…well, you get the idea (it’s loud). But that’s not what you’re reading this for. You want to know if it works. I wondered the same thing, so to give it a fair trial on busy Sydney streets, I’ve used it on my commutes every day. I have also used it on some pedestrian populated shared user paths, which I normally avoid. Here are my findings:
The Hornit vs Pedestrians
As mentioned above, the Hornit is loud and it’s also quite directional. When you’re in front of the Hornit you’ll really hear it. What this means for you is that the pedestrians on the path ahead of you are going to hear you a long time before you’re near them (at least in theory). The Hornit operates in two modes (130 dB and 140 dB) and these modes have different sounds; the quiter mode is a single high pitch tone and the louder mode is a two tone twittering sound, sort of like a car alarm. I used both tones in a variety of circumstances and had some mixed results.
On the positive side, the Hornit is loud enough to be heard over personal music devices, telephone calls and conversations. On the negative side the sounds the Hornit make are not immediately associated with a cyclist coming up behind. Pedestrians are used to a lot of loud noises when they’re walking around, and everyone is used to car alarms going off. It’s been ingrained in people that bikes have bells or horns and that’s the sound they identify with, when they actually hear it. This isn’t to say the Hornit is not effective, you just have to be aware of how to use it.
A short single blast from the Hornit, in either mode, didn’t seem to make an impact on many pedestrians, but multiple short blasts, in either mode, seemed to make a difference. It’s really about creating something different in their heads as they’re walking/wandering and getting past the programming that immediately ignores loud alarm like sounds. A few short blasts does that since it’s not a “natural” suburban sound.
Obviously, if you snuck up behind a pedestrian and gave them a blast on the Hornit, they would “react”, probably right into your path. The benefit of the Hornit is that you can actually do it from a lot farther away than you can with a bell. It’s easy to tap out a little tune as well, since the push button for the Hornit can be placed right under your thumb and you don’t need to move your hands off the grips to use it.
The Hornit vs Animals
One thing I noticed when using the Hornit is that dogs really don’t like it. A blast or two of the Hornit stopped a couple of annoying dogs in their tracks. They didn’t look like biters, but I’ve had my fair share of those in the past and I’d rather keep any sort of angry dog at bay. I know they’re only protecting their territory, but so am I.
By the way, cats don’t like it either. They really don’t like it. No, I didn’t meet any cats while out riding, but I do have some cats at home and while I didn’t deliberately chase after the cats (my wife wouldn’t let me), while I was showing the Hornit off to the kids the cats decided to bolt like there was a hell hound chasing them. The wife wasn’t impressed by the Hornit, but the kids loved it.
The Hornit vs Motorists
Pedestrians and dogs are one thing, cars are quite another. Bells and yells don’t always work against cars, where they almost always work against people and animals. I began my experiments against my wife in a stationary car. She had just dropped the kids off at school and I was heading out late to work. She had just parked the car and was looking through her bag when I rode up behind her and gave her a short blast of the Hornit on the soft mode. She was slow to look up, looked around and then noticed me. I was a bit dismayed by this and she said that it sounded like a car alarm, so she ignored it. Given that this was the first time I had used the Hornit against a car, I wasn’t impressed.
A few days later I had occasion to use it again against a car reversing out of a driveway. They stopped before they saw me, which made me feel safe and a little bit empowered. The Hornit this time was on loud mode, the twittering mode, and I gave it a good long blast. Later the same day I had a taxi turn across double white lines in front of me, attempting to do an illegal three point turn. I slowed, gave him three blasts on high mode and he stopped reversing while I was still a good distance away. I passed slowly behind him and gave him a death stare. A few cars had caught up to me and also passed behind the taxi, keeping him there for a while. Shame there weren’t any cops in the bunch.
I’ve used it several times in the way described above against motorists in a variety of circumstances, all to good effect. I also found it good for drowning out “conversations” such as “Keep off the r-TWEET-TWEET-TWEET. You’re a TWEET-TWEET”. So, the Hornit works, but it doesn’t give you the same sense of power that a car horn would. You can use it to identify yourself, to say that there’s something there that they didn’t see, but you really can’t use it to get rid of your frustration or express your annoyance. It’s too high and twittery to sound angry, but experience has shown me that it does work a lot better than a bell, and a whole lot better than nothing at all.
Sound like a good idea?
The Hornit is a very well designed warning device, but it’s not a horn or a bell and it’s not a sound that people immediately associate with a bicycle, whether that person is in a car or on foot. If you use it in repeated short bursts, it seems to get through to people that there’s something they should be looking at. Because it is so directional, people will know where it’s coming from when they do hear it and decide to look around.
As a commuter device, the Hornit is quite easy to use and has a few nifty features that show that it was designed by a commuter. The trigger switch on the Hornit is a great innovation. The button is attached to the handlebars via a Knog light style rubber band “thingy” which means it can be attached almost anywhere. It’s connected to the main unit via a wire and plug which you have to remember to plug in when you attach the Hornit, otherwise you’ll be pressing the button and nothing will happen (guess how I know this). If you frequently take the Hornit off the bike, as I do every time I lock it up, it doesn’t take long to incorporate the extra device into your routine.
The only thing I would change on the Hornit is the length of the trigger cable. As is, it’s fine for flat bars, but I ride drops and I would love to have the trigger near the hood where I can hit it without moving my hands from them. It took me a few days to work out a good position for the trigger, one that I wouldn’t hit accidentally while moving my hands around, but when I finally did find it the cable just wasn’t long enough. If I put it under the bar tape, it might just reach, but I want to be able to move it between bikes and a slightly longer cable would be a better option for me (that, or flat handlebars, and that’s not happening). I think I’ll just add a bit to the cable myself, since I really like the trigger idea. In fact, I would love to have something like this to control my lights and enable me to switch modes.
The inventor of the Hornit was inspired to create it after experiencing London traffic. According to the company, it works in London. I’ll confirm here that it works in Sydney, at least as well as anything else does. The Hornit is functional and sturdy and it certainly lives up to its promise of being loud. While it’s not going to make everyone on the road or path aware of you, it’s certainly better than a bell or a yell in many situations.
I typically wear hi-vis clothing when I ride and when it gets dark, along with my lights, I also throw on a safety vest with lots of reflective material on it. I’m always brightly coloured and I try to ride visibly and predictably. Obviously, all of these things won’t save me if I get hit, but each one of them gives me that extra little bit of presence that will hopefully keep me safe on the roads. The Hornit means that I can ride both big and loud.
The Hornit is imported by Cassons (firstname.lastname@example.org) and available through all good bike stores.