Ding, ding, bike on the road! Ding ding, careful now. Ding ding, excuse me and my two wheeled contraption. Ding ding, look away from your phone and focus on the road you’re crossing. Ding ding ding ding, is this annoying? Ding ding ding ding ding, why are you angry I have alerted you to my presence? Ding! What the hell is bicycle bell etiquette?
I’ve fitted a bell to my commuter bike. My oh my. Who’d have thought such a simple act would be so fraught with existential questions?!
The first week was confusing. I’ve commuted by bike in London for well over ten years. Mostly without incident. Mostly. Cycling in London is relatively safe and nowhere near as dangerous as most people believe. OK, caveat done.
Until now I’ve relied on voice to alert others to my presence. It’s been effective and has the major advantage that you don’t need to re-position your hands to ring a bell. So why change?
I no longer want to bark at people. True, I shouldn’t have to but the reality is we’re still some way short of a cycling nirvana so until then I still need to alert others to my presence.
Why a bell? Nothing says “bicycle coming through” more than a bell. It is a universally known noise. I no longer want to be shouty man on a bike but a cyclist with a bell. Cyclists are not liked by some, for some reasons I understand (not obeying road laws) and others I struggle to fathom (sharing the road), and so yelling is not good for our collective perception. Even polite yelling is still yelling.
Ding ding. Better yes? What do you mean, no? It seems even the humble bicycle bell is not liked by some. I asked around. Seems bike bells annoy pedestrians, especially if they deem the bell ringing excessive.
Others consider bike bells rude. We’re a touchy lot aren’t we? Seems people take offense at being notified of the presence of another. I wonder if they feel the same about the car driver who beeps the horn when the pedestrian obliviously step into the road?
Ringing a bike bell. To some there’s connotations of a lord or lady beckoning aside the commoners, others just don’t like being ‘dinged’ no matter what the reason, a little like drivers who don’t like being on the receiving end of another driver’s, er, horn, or people who don’t like being asked to follow rules when they are breaking them. Don’t you tell me what to do…
Should this stop cyclists using bells? No. In fact, it’s a reason to use them more. More riders using bells will do two things. One, it will normalise the sound by making the ding of a bell more commonplace and thus, more acceptable. Two, and more importantly, it will make pedestrians more aware of cyclists. Most pedestrians fail to look for cyclists when crossing the road, they simply don’t expect them to be there.
Bicycle bell etiquette
Etiquette. A polite way of saying rules. Unspoken of course. For nobody must ever actually know these rules, oh no, that would be far too logical. Imagine a world short of etiquette. Eating would be quite the experience. Dating even more so.
So it is a bicycle bell has etiquette. What do you mean I’m over thinking this? Moi? Surely we just ring the damn thing and people react? Well it’s not quite so simple my friend, it never is, is it? First world problems and all that.
How any times should I ring my bell?
A tricky one this. Ring it once and you risk not being heard. Twice is a safe bet when approaching from behind. Thrice is good as a second warning. Four times from a distance is best in a loud city during rush hour. Continuous is great when filtering down the inside of traffic where you know pedestrians are crossing the road in between stationary motor traffic and straight into your path.
When should I ring my bell?
I’ve found ringing the bell well in advance is best, so as not to pounce on people and surprise or scare them. Ring the bell too late and you confuse people.
Be sure to give yourself enough time to ding when turning left or right too, as depending upon the position of your bell, trying to indicate using your arm and ringing your bell can be tricky. Perhaps we need two bike bells.
When shouldn’t I ring my bell?
Usually not when stationary, or alone on a road. Or when happy or in celebratory mood. Don’t ring in the hour using your bell, you are not Big Ben. Neither does having a bell give you a right to ride on the pavement.
How about overtaking another cyclist? Not usually. Use your judgement, perhaps when on a single track path, but not when there’s plenty of room to overtake. Overtaking other cyclists, it should be simple, but this is probably another entire blog!
What behaviour should I expect once I’ve rung my bell?
I’ve found this depends on the situation in which you ring the bell. Ring it early and not often, most folk will note your presence and all is good.
Ring it too late and people will be confused, unsure what to do when they see the cyclist almost upon them, causing both you and them more trouble than if you’d have silently chosen your path and cruised on by.
Ring it excessively and people will take umbridge and more likely ignore you or deliberately impede your progress.
What shouldn’t I expect?
Just because you have a bell doesn’t make you king or queen of the road. Do not expect the road to clear just because you have rung your bell. You still need to ride with consideration. A bell ring is not a command to be obeyed, merely a friendly hello.
Using your bell is no excuse for riding too quickly or running into folk, you still need to follow the rule to look out for the most vulnerable road user. There’s no reason to be shouting at folk if they fail to hear your bell. Many people wear headphones, or may be standing next to the loud engine of a bus, or quite simply are not used to bikes making ding ding noises so are not listening for them.
It goes without saying you shouldn’t expect car drivers to hear your bell.
Would I recommend fitting a bike bell?
To your commuter or city bike, definitely. We need the sound of the bicycle bell to become an accepted currency of our shared spaces. No more shouting, no more not being heard. Some may believe I should politely ask or say ‘Excuse me’? Maybe on a quiet towpath but not in the cacophony of London’s rush hour traffic? I might as well whisper my approach from 2 miles away!
What about buying one of those loud bike horns? Stick with the humble bell, my friend. Loud horns are as bad shouting. They’re excessive, startling and unnecessary.
How about fitting a bell to your road bike? Sure, go ahead if you’re commuting. Less so for the weekend club run perhaps. Interestingly my bell arrived with my new road bike, a machine made for speed. So why supply a bike bell?
Bicycle bell law in the UK
Bikes have to be fitted with bells at the point of sale, but there is no legal requirement to fit or use them once on the road. I bought my bike online, hence the bell in the box. Interestingly, a bell is part of the minimum requirements for international use as required by the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic.
What do you think? Is using a bike bell a courteous ring or a rude ding?
Lead image courtesy of the excellent bikeyface.com, great cycling cartoons.