Talking to Machines

When you need to communicate to another human being it’s pretty straight forward.

Talking to Machines

Trying to communicate with a machine is more difficult.

Talking to Machines

I know there’s a human being behind the machine. But can’t always see them and their vocabulary is pretty limited. So when I get honked at I’m left to guess what they’re trying to express.

Talking to Machines

While I know most people are decent, I’m too afraid to turn around and engage just in case the last driver is the one behind the wheel.

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41 Responses to “Talking to Machines”

  • I can definitely relate to this. Normally, I interpret a honk as an aggressive move, but there are times when a friend or friendly person will honk at me to get my attention.

    Unfortunately, because I am easily startled, honking is a bad way to try to get my attention while riding.

  • Ross Lindgren

    To paraphrase Nick Nolte in the Amazon Fire TV commercial, “It’s frustrating when machines don’t listen.”

    • Vocu Dwabe

      “It’s frustrating when machines don’t listen.”

      Indeed it is: as so memorably captured by this heart-rending sequence from the 1976 BBC TV comdey “Fawlty Towers”. As a depiction of human/machine non-interaction it remains definitive.

  • Whether or not the driver intends it, I usually interpret a honk as a giant FU. Probably because that’s the intention often enough and I’m bracing myself for a worst-case scenario.

  • Vocus Dwabe

    We have a convention in Britain that a bicycle is a person perched on top of a flimsy metal frame, doing something that really shouldn’t be allowed in any properly ordered society, and that a motor vehicle is a kind of autonomous unit with a mind and volition of its own, just doing what motor vehicles naturally do, and if you get in it’s way any harm that befalls you is your own bloody silly fault. The approved style for local-newspaper headlines – it hardly ever makes the national press – is “Cyclist Killed by Car”, not “Cyclist Killed by Motorist” or “Bicycle Hit by Car and Rider Killed”.

    At least in the States, despite the best efforts of the NRA, I believe that your headlines still tend to say “Gunman Kills Seven People” rather than “Gun Kills Seven People.”

    It’s well known that the anonymity and physical protection of being inside a motor vehicle makes you apt to do things that you would never dream of doing outside it: if only for fear of having your head punched. Which is why (I’ve found) mass-cycling cultures tend to be far politer societies than ones where driving is the norm.

    Tinted window glass makes matters even worse: which is why so many of the drivers of London-based SUVs – known as “Chelsea Tractors” – like it so much.

    For extreme human-machine interaction, if some driver has really pissed you off and you’ve managed to track the vehicle down to its parking place, I would suggest a rag stuffed up the exhaust pipe. It was a favourite with the French Resistance because it’s not somewhere most people would think of looking when they can’t get the vehicle to start. Plus which, it’s not really malicious damage either.

    • Ethan Fleming

      I to all understand where you are company from. In Massachusetts there is a common there in accidents where dirvers don’t want to Take responsibility for their actions. Not all, but a lot of drivers, have a delusional Idea in their head that the Road is for cars and cars only. Like you said, headlines say that a car Caused an Accident a lot and almost Never say a bad Driver Caused it. People don’t like Taking responsibility for their actions.
      Bike face if right by saying look of communication is a big part of it but the same can be said about accidents that Only involve cars.

    • Les Murray

      Thanks for that British perspective. I feel that drivers would never dream of coming close to a slow moving tractor where they could do real damage to their vehicle but some of them don’t feel the same about coming close to a cyclist which just seems cowardly to me. I can’t wait for the three foot law to take effect everywhere.

    • No, no one is ever killed by anyone in a motor vehicle here in the US. It is always an accident, like, say, when you drop something. “Oops! Accident!” is all you have to say to be forgiven. It’s not anybody’s fault, it just happens every so often. Everybody understands that it could happen to anyone, so there’s no sense in getting upset about it.

  • SarahL

    “While I know most people are decent, I’m too afraid to turn around and engage just in case the last driver is the one behind the wheel.”

    I feel the same way! I was waiting at a red light at Davis Sq at around 10am, and a car suddenly pulled up next to me, so close that its bumper almost bumped my leg! I wanted to look back and say something but remembered that I am a petite woman and would probably come out second in any physical altercation, so I moved my bike up ahead instead to put some distance between us, and kept my gaze ahead and mouth shut.

  • Pyrtwist

    When I ride on the streets I always assume someone is behind me and sometimes I have my son follow me in his car and hoonk at me randomly so I am less startled by a dimwit with a horn. “Horns should be as loud on the inside as they are on the outside of a car.”

  • I use a mirror, so when someone honks I can yell, ‘I see you!’ while pointing to it. The mirror also helps me to know when I have a vehicle behind me at an intersection that wants to turn right so I don’t block them. I have no qualms about confrontations with the bottom three driver types. It’s unlikely they are as or more psychotic than me. :)


    • Ethan Fleming

      Lately, I noticed a lot of drivers never check their passenger side mirror. Then When they almost hit someone because of it they Try to say they person they almost hit was in their blind spot

  • dr2chase

    They’re just honking to let you know that it would be safer if you took the lane.

    • You do realize the idiocy of “vehicular cycling” advocacy has stunted the growth of actual bicycle infrastructure by 20 years or more, yes? There is a preponderance of evidence showing the vast majority of folks don’t feel safe cohabiting the roads with cars, most likely because they don’t want to die. We don’t need more advocates of testosterone and adrenaline, we need advocates of infrastructure.

      Oh, and cars /never/ honk at cyclists who do take the lane…

    • fred_dot_u

      dr2chase, your comment is amusing, especially as I am a strong proponent of controlling the lane. I very often wish to pull alongside a gutter bunny and suggest that they “get into the road!” After learning safe cycling, the horn sounding count dropped to about ten percent of what it was. Drivers are better able to address a cyclist directly ahead and plan appropriately, rather than to hope to squeeze past and learn at the last moment that there is insufficient room to do so. That results in a horn sounding more often than not, especially if the driver has to slow from posted speed or higher to cyclist speed.

      With correct lane positioning, the driver can react well in advance and few find it necessary to sound off, despite the suggestion made by Benjamin.

    • Vocus Dwabe

      “They’re just honking to let you know that it would be safer if you took the lane.”

      Try not to make me laugh so much, my colostomy bag is overflowing

  • Horns are LOUD… as a driver and cyclist in the city I keep that in mind and rarely use my horn unless it’s towards another car. On a bike they scare the hell out of me, especially when they are close but you cannot see the car from which the horn is emanating… in those cases I am afraid the car is saying “look out, I’m about to run over you!” … eesh.

  • Perhaps we need to learn to speak car, and access a new range of our sonorous capacities.

  • I too, don’t know what to think when I hear a car honking (at me or not at me). Except one time the honking was persistent. The vehicle followed me until the passenger called out to me through the car’s open window that my pannier bag popped off my bike rack several blocks away. The people picked it up and followed me to give it back. I was so relieved and grateful to them!

  • LVasquez

    I now respond to honks with blowing a kiss with the peace sign – waaaay better for my heart than flipping a bird and cursing.

    • Ethan Fleming

      That is a good point. If a Driven hours at you it mean they see you and that is a good thing.

  • August 31, 2001, I met the male version of the last driver when he was doing about 60 MPH (according to the crash reconstruction) and after he had already threatened me once while driving the opposite direction. Even when those drivers are only one in a million, it doesn’t matter when they’re the one behind you…

  • Sorry, I am not giving the honk the benefit of doubt. The rules say it’s allowed as a warning from imminent danger only, so its legitimate use is very limited. On the other hand, when the horn goes off right next to me, on my bike in the open, the volume is deafening, the startle likely to make me veer into the car’s path, and the deed bordering on malicious injury and coercion.

  • crank

    I loved this post from David Hembrow:

    “I still tense up a little if I hear a car horn when cycling. I still glance around for escape routes. This is a learnt behaviour which comes from many years of cycling in Britain…”

    while noticing someone in a car tooting a ‘hello’ to a pal on a bike. :-)

  • Vocus Dwabe

    There was one suggestion recently which rather appealed to me: that in order to even up the game a little on the roads (as it were) the British Army’s now-surplus main battle tanks and armoured personnel carriers should be mingled into rush-hour city traffic in order to give motorists some idea of what it’s like to jostle twice a day with vehicles vastly heavier and more powerful than yourself, virtually blind, and which can casually crush you like a gnat without even being aware of having done so (Oh, and just to make things a bit fairer, the tank would have a “Motorists Stay Back” sticker, just so that they can’t say they weren’t warned). We might then see headlines like “Motorist Killed by Challenger Tank.”

    PS. Having thought about it, the NRA’s take on firearms massacres would in fact be something more like “Seven People Killed by Person Using Bullets, Gun Possibly Involved Somewhere.”

  • Yes, you can’t tell, so you can make up your own mind about what they are thinking. I choose to assume any driver behind me honking is saying “I’ve got your back, don’t worry! It’s OK to take the lane!”
    …So I wave thanks and take it.

  • @Benjamin “You do realize the idiocy of “vehicular cycling” advocacy has stunted the growth of actual bicycle infrastructure by 20 years or more, yes?”

    Er, no. What do you mean? Is there less non-roadway cycling options because we ride in the street?

  • Vocus Dwabe

    Horn etiquette varies greatly from country to country. In England the merest toot (and ringing a bicycle bell likewise) is taken to mean something like “out of my way, scum!”, which is why you hardly ever do it, whereas here in the south of France motorists blare their horns all the time in a manner which, in Britain, would be taken as a prelude to murder, but which down here just expresses mild frustration. I live on a town square with one-way traffic around it, and at busy times of the day I constantly hear drivers sounding their horns in chorus for ten or twenty seconds at a time in a way that, to English ears, sounds like the beginnings of a civil war, but in fact only means something like “if it’s not too much trouble, monsieur, we would be grateful if you would cease chatting with that rather pretty little vendeuse in the chemist’s shop and move your vehicle, which is blocking the street. If you don’t mind…”

    However, French motorists never sound their horn to alarm cyclists, which is very common in the UK.

    • dragonfrog

      Similarly, when I was in Germany, I found folks generally rang their bike bells before rounding a corner on a bike or multi-use path, just in case there’s someone coming the other way.

      Here in Canada, we tend to prefer the invigorating adrenaline rush of the split-second swerve-curse-brake maneuver.

  • highwayman

    When I drive a tractor-trailer (18-wheeler or articulated lorry), I have access to two horns:

    1) the stereotypical and very loud air-horn,

    2) and a regular, merely tooting, city-horn that every motor-vehicle has.

    In that spirit, I had two signaling devices on my handlebars at one point: the bicycle bell for polite signaling, and an air-horn for the cars whose drivers were blasting their car-radio. Said air-horn is made by Air Zound — battery not needed.

    For cars to communicate with vulnerable road uses, they should have two signalling devices as well:

    1) The Car Horn as usual;

    2) and chimes or a bell for polite signalling.

    Two signalling devices for different purposes on every vehicle would go further in improving communication with each other.

    • Vocus Dwabe

      There is much in what you say: especially now that we’re seeing more electric cars on the streets – but not hearing them, because they’re pretty well silent and are liable to creep up behind you on a bike without your being aware of it. Perhaps they should have to play some gentle little tinkly tune as they manoeuvre in city streets: anything at all so long as it’s not Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”.

      No, on seconds thoughts we ought to scrap that idea and just have them emit a gentle bird-twittering sound or wind-chimes or something: the sort of neutral “Whale Music of the Andes” stuff they play in lifts. About forty years ago there was a vogue in the UK for car horns that played tunes: usually “Colonel Bogey” or something equally crass. These were so indescribably irritating that they were eventually made illegal, in order to prevent an epidemic of murders, and the drivers had to make do instead with a sign saying “I am a self-advertising cretin”.

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