Should I use a bicycle bell?

Cycling bell cartoon
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.

Sleek. People will probably see you coming before they hear you

Sleek. People will probably see you coming before they hear you

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

Bike bell memeEtiquette. 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?

Very loud bike bell

Please look at me, please!

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?

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Lead image courtesy of the excellent bikeyface.com, great cycling cartoons.

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27 thoughts on “Should I use a bicycle bell?

  1. Interesting read. FWIW Here is more info for a slightly different setting. I am retired. I live by the lakefront in Chicago so I have access to a bike path that extends over 30 miles. I get sunrises in the morning that take my breath away. There are no cars on this bike path. Sound like heaven? Not quite. In nice weather (not freezing, raining or snowing) there are tourists walking on the path along with joggers running. For my money anyone who rides here WITHOUT a bell is insane. I have a ding-dong bell which rings as loud as legally possible. I ring it once when I am about 15 feet away from walkers. Because it is a loud bell, about 90% heed it. The others apparently just don’t care. I used to ride with a little tinkle bell hoping not to annoy people, but I found that about 90% ignored it completely. I am guessing they envisioned an old lady behind them that could just bide her time. Hence, the bigger louder bell. Finally, when folks heed the bell and make room, I always thank them as I pass. I also favor a loud bell for street riding too for your own and the safety of others. All that said, just like they tell auto drivers – you need to drive (ride) defensively.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Tony – I agree, if you are going to be using a shared path then a bell is required – British Waterways once launched a campaign called ‘Two Tings’, encouraging bike bell use on narrow canal tow paths.

      Personally I prefer to avoid such narrow tow paths altogether as it’s a frustrating riding experience and I know cyclists frustrate walkers too.

      Interesting you mention ‘legally loud’, assume you have laws in place to regulate bike horns? I don’t think such a thing exists here in the UK, for cars perhaps.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Actually the guy at the bike shop told me that about the legal limit when I bought it ( actually ‘them’- I put one bell on all my bikes). Agree completely on your ideas about narrow paths. I avoid them, too. Very dangerous for all concerned. The path by our lakefront is about 30 feet wide.

      Liked by 1 person

    • “For my money anyone who rides here WITHOUT a bell is insane. I have a ding-dong bell which rings as loud as legally possible. I ring it once when I am about 15 feet away from walkers. Because it is a loud bell, about 90% heed it.” – Well said Tony!

      – esme upon the Cloud

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This drives me crazy. I’m partially deaf, but I can hear a bike bell, ideally an old fashioned one, if a tiny new one, then two tings really helps. What I can’t hear until the very last minute is the guy/gal behind me who has reached my shoulder before they say “coming through” or the like. I often jump a bit and have nearly come off several times. It’s just the same for the walkers who may be older too. I ring from a distance to see if I get a head turn. If I don’t, I ring again, and if I get closer and there’s no reaction I shout out, but aim not to make people jump out of their skin. Sometimes this means slowing down a lot.

    I’ve had the bell argument with many other cyclists and even some walkers who hate to hear the sound and deem it rude. It isn’t rude it’s the exact opposite, it’s being polite!

    And better a crumpled brow in irritation, than a crumpled rider who didn’t hear you until the last minute and falls.

    – esme growling upon the Cloud

    Liked by 1 person

    • The notion of a bell being rude makes me chuckle. I can see why a gee sensitive folk may think they’re being dismissed as lower life forms by the cavalier on the bike. Yet the reality is the cyclist just wants to pass by without injuring or surprising.

      Liked by 1 person

    • “the cavalier on the bike” – Hahahaha. Aye, it’s all quite nuts. People have forgotton what bells and horns were created for. That sounds rude, but I assure you it isn’t.

      – esme falling about (but not off her bike) upon the Cloud

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve just got a new commuting bike complete with bell, and I have to say I’ve taken it off the bike. I’ve found a better use for it. It’s one of the zip tie type fixings, so fits onto smaller diameter objects, like the handle for my tea mug at work. I just ring it until tea arrives. It’s a wonderful accessory, highly recommended.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Been commuting in the small village of London for over 10 years. I have a BOO! Bell, it goes off every time a pedestrian gets to close and always just as I’m passing by, I should get the BOO! Bell Camera accessory to capture their little faces…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Cycle the country lanes and cycle paths round here, with & without groups. Wouldn’t be without my wee bell. It’s small and light, shelters behind the handlebars and sounds lovely, so a couple o dings doesn’t go astray. As well as being used for folk, it’s a good warning for horse riders, combined with slowing right down, pheasants, squirrels, sheep, deer and other miscellaneous wildlife on the tarmac. It’s also great for greeting pals in the village. But, and it’s a big bit, I try never to assume that riders or people ahead aren’t hard of hearing or wearing head phones, plus always a cheery thanks as I pass.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My Whyte Sussex road bike is sturdy enough to handle the rural canal paths down my way and it came with bell attached – sleek and simple, with a loud but pleasant ‘ting’ to it. When riding the paths at reasonable pace most walkers seem to appreciate and respond to a courteous ‘ting-ting’, delivered in good time. Hurrah!

    But some folk are bloomin’ contrary: from the tutting, pursed-lip merchants who seem to take mild offence at the warning but reluctantly allow your progress, to the full-on awkward squad who know you’re there but amble on regardless, doing their best to make you stop, or go round close to the canal edge… and don’t get me started on the oblivious headphone set!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I don’t get the contrary group. It’s almost as if they’re insulted, their self centered world blown apart by the need of another. Would they stand firm if a fellow pedestrian wanted to pass with a polite excuse me, which is all a bike bell is.

      How’s the Whyte Sussex? I’ve any good things.

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  7. I don’t have a bell on my bike. I’ve considered putting one on but I haven’t yet bought one, mainly because a simple “on your left!” works for me almost all the time. For the iPod zombies, er, walker,s I call out “on your left!” repeatedly until they take notice or I pass them, whichever happens first. Sometimes I don’t call out if the person or people have already noticed me. When it comes to children and pets, though, I always: announce myself well in advance; slow down considerably; and have a hand over the brakes as I pass. With adults, you can usually assume that they will continue in a straight line, but you can’t say the same for dogs or kids.

    If anything I would probably get a squeaky dog toy rather than a bicycle bell.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha ha, squeaky dog toy may lead to some enjoyable chases! I’ve not got your confidence when it comes to adults acting logically! As an occasional walker myself I know how easy it is to get lost in your own little world and be confused when a bike approaches from behind. And that’s before I’ve had a few pints!

      Like

  8. I hate to say it, but to be honest, I’ve always thought of the bell as “un cool.” If various groups of riders show up for a ride, it’s usually the codgers who have bells and other colorful adornments to their bikes. Its a way of saying, “I just don’t give a crap anymore and I’m going to let everyone know it.” Having said that, I might have to get a bell.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha ha, I was young once too and thought along similar lines. The foolishness of youth! Not that I’m ancient now. It’s not that older riders don’t give a crap, the opposite in fact. They do give a crap, just for other people more than themselves. The beauty if wisdom. Riding with older riders has taught me many things. Especially when they ride me off their wheel with ease!

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  9. What ever happened to saying something like passing on your right (or left) & then saying thank you as you pass? A bell doesn’t tell the pedestrian which way you are going & is very annoying in my opinion. First of all it is serious noise pollution. Especially when you’re enjoying a nice quite walk listening to the insects, birds, etc. 99% of the time I hear you approaching, why do you need to disturb the environment with an obnoxious bell? Especially those who love to ring, ring, ring it in the outdoors away from any crowds. IMHO, you’re jerks.

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    • I think it depends on the situation Thomas. Politely​ asking may work in a quieter environment but not in a busy city with loud engine noises. On your right also gets misinterpreted, with pedestrians often thinking you are asking them to move right, and so they walk into the path of the bike. It’s great that you hear cyclists approaching, many people do not hence, the invention and success of a bike bell. Not sure why you feel the need to be obnoxious and start throwing insults around either?

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  10. I risk a $106 fine every time I ride my bike. Why? Because I don’t have a bell. Nevermind that I ride exclusively on roads with speed limits of 80 km/h or above during my commutes, nevermind that I have never seen a person walking while I’m on my commute, or that I’m not even legally allowed to ride on a footpath where I live. I guess I’m just a rebel at heart. At least we stopped them from forcing us to carry ID when riding, and their idea of bike rego/licence sunk in the water (eventually).

    I think if I saw people on my rides and not just buffoons looking at their phones while driving I’d use a bell. But I won’t be holding my breath for that to happen around here anytime soon.

    Like

  11. Bells are a must. 99% of people are happy to know I’m coming through – the only exceptions seem to be deaf old people who tell me I should have used my bell even when i have! Pet hates on bridleways are dogs -or rather carefree handlers, next up people using earphones and oblivious to the real world.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I think the majority of the responses on this issue fails to recognize the pedestrian’s right of way. When I ride on multi-use trails, I SLOW DOWN, then warn the pedestrians of my intent to pass on the left (I’m in the USA). I also do a fair amount of walking on these same trails and notice the majority of cyclist fail to abide by this ESSENTIAL STEP for safety’s sake. Some places require the pedestrian to walk on the left side of the trail facing bicycle traffic riding on the riding on the right. This way the pedestrian can see cyclist coming and the cyclist can pass without using a bell or shouting at the pedestrians. I like this idea and think it should be a requirement everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

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