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With a debate in the Lords on road safety turning to bicycle bells, cycling law expert Mark Hambleton questions whether they're really the right solution

The bicycle bell is a humble object. Who would have thought it would reach such lofty heights as to be discussed in the House of Lords?

Well, last month, just as Lord Berkeley was about to introduce an important question about the terrible state of our roads, he had his query hijacked. Lord Lexden, turning the topic of debate to something he deemed much more important, questioned how pedestrians could be safe when cyclists refuse to “…equip their machine with a bell…”.

Lord Lang of Monkton also came back to this point later on, saying; “If the law does not require the fitting of bells on bicycles, does the Minister agree that it would be a very good idea, and will she consider whether the law should be amended?”

The Under Secretary of State for Transport did not commit but said that she would take those thoughts back and “…feed in that suggestion”.

If you have a couple of minutes I would recommend reading the transcript of the exchange so you can see how quickly the conversation went off on a tangent from something really important to a few anecdotal thoughts about the importance of bicycle bells and how they should again become a legal requirement.

What is the law on bicycle bells?

With the intention of reducing unnecessary laws, the compulsory requirement for bicycles to have a bell fitted was ended in 1999. As it stands, cyclists in the UK are under no obligation to have a bell fitted to their bicycle or to use a bell when they’re riding their bike.

Rule 66 of the Highway Code states “Let them know you are there when necessary, for example, by ringing your bell if you have one. It is recommended that a bell be fitted…” ‘Recommended’ being the key word here; it is not a legal requirement.

Why are we even talking about enforcing bicycle bells?

It seems that bicycle bells are being shoe-horned onto the agenda under the guise of the Government’s road safety statement – yet another topic used to portray cyclists (rather than motorists) as a danger to pedestrians. I am yet to see any evidence that compulsory bells will improve the safety of pedestrians and therefore it seems like a complete waste of time to talk about them.

The Government’s cycle safety review states that there have been nine cases in the past ten years (yes, ten years) with sufficient levels of culpability to be relevant to the review into whether we need a ‘dangerous cycling’ law – how many deaths have been caused by motorists in the same period and how many changes have we seen to protect vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists?

We know that many people are put off cycling by the state of our roads and let’s not forget that 99.33% of pedestrian deaths and 99.55% of serious injuries to pedestrians are caused by motorists (or some other cause which is not motoring or cycling related).

The evidence seems clear-cut, we need to tackle the lethal threat posed by motor vehicles and we should not be side-tracked by bicycle bells!

My thoughts on the issue

Let me be clear: bicycle bells aren’t going to improve pedestrian safety. There isn’t the evidence to suggest that there is a problem that needs addressing in the first place.

Furthermore, there are a number of concerns I have over enforcing their use anyway:

  • how on earth would it be enforced? Presumably, it would fall to the police. Do we really think this is a good use of police time and do we think it sends the right message about encouraging people to cycle?
  • to what extent does using a bell impair the cyclists’ ability to operate his/her brakes and distract them generally?
  • in my experience, ringing a bell upsets many pedestrians who perhaps see it as a symbol of entitlement and that they are expected to obey and move aside.

Most importantly, can we not simply speak to one another? A shout should suffice in emergencies (in which there are too few to mention anyway) and on shared use paths; presumably it is self-evident that pedestrians should expect there to be cyclists (it is sensible to walk towards oncoming bicycles) and if cyclists are going too quickly to let pedestrians know they’re coming then perhaps they are going too quickly in the circumstances.

And maybe, just maybe, by speaking to other road users and understanding their position we (and our duly elected representatives in parliament) might come to some more sensible conclusions as to improving road safety for all and avoiding unnecessary consideration of/legislation for bicycle bells.

After taking up cycling to commute between Bristol and Bath, Mark has seen all sorts of incidents and has become a keen advocate for cycling and protecting the rights of cyclists.

Mark is now lucky enough to combine his passion for cycling with his day job as a cycling solicitor at Royds Withy King.

18 comments

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Broady. [105 posts] 3 weeks ago
2 likes

What a set of bellends.

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Fishpastesarnie [17 posts] 3 weeks ago
6 likes

Surely making it illegal for pedestrians to wear/use headphones whilst walking would be a better use of their time.

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hawkinspeter [2117 posts] 3 weeks ago
5 likes

Nicely written article - I agree with the points raised.

I don't mind having a bell on my bikes and I do use them from time to time. However, I can't see any instance when they would prevent an incident as you can always just shout or slow down instead of using a bell. Also, using a bell doesn't mean that you shouldn't slow down if someone doesn't respond (e.g. a deaf person on a shared use path isn't going to react to a bell). On the roads, a bell is completely useless as drivers aren't going to be able to hear it or won't react even if they do.

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hawkinspeter [2117 posts] 3 weeks ago
3 likes
Fishpastesarnie wrote:

Surely making it illegal for pedestrians to wear/use headphones whilst walking would be a better use of their time.

Presumably you'd want legislation to prevent deaf people from walking around as well.

I know that it's annoying when pedestrians aren't paying attention to their surroundings on shared use paths, but that's just part of sharing space with slower (more vulnerable?) traffic.

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the little onion [197 posts] 3 weeks ago
4 likes

A major issue with bells is that un-leashed dogs on shared use paths can often react badly to people pinging the bells. Sometimes i think that owners encourage their dogs to chase cyclists. 

 

Of course, if people actually followed highway code rule 56 "Dogs. Do not let a dog out on the road on its own. Keep it on a short lead when walking on the pavement, road or path shared with cyclists or horse riders.", then we wouldn't have that problem.

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jpj84 [15 posts] 3 weeks ago
3 likes

My big concern is that human ears are simply incapable of hearing bells: I was confronted by an old codger on a towpath recently, when I politely asked him if I could squeeze past - he gave an impolite rant about me not having a bell on my bike, when they were in fact mandatory. I politely pointed out that I had a bell on my bike, and had rung it three times before politely asking if I could squeeze through. 

Not the first time this has happened - people just seem to ignore bells entirely, so I always slow down to walking pace, on the assumption they haven't heard, or, worse, that they do hear, and leap to one side or another.

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don simon [2400 posts] 3 weeks ago
2 likes

The billigerents will ignore bells, the voice, lights, in fact anything. It's not in their nature.

 

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Fishpastesarnie [17 posts] 3 weeks ago
0 likes
hawkinspeter wrote:
Fishpastesarnie wrote:

Surely making it illegal for pedestrians to wear/use headphones whilst walking would be a better use of their time.

Presumably you'd want legislation to prevent deaf people from walking around as well.

I know that it's annoying when pedestrians aren't paying attention to their surroundings on shared use paths, but that's just part of sharing space with slower (more vulnerable?) traffic.

 

You have a good idea there. Perhaps a hi viz bobble hat would suffice.

 

**Edit** Actually a better idea would be hi viz comedy Prince Charles ears. Then we would could specifically mark them out and know what the issue is. A bobble hat is too vague.

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EK Spinner [100 posts] 3 weeks ago
2 likes

is simply calling out "Ding Ding" going to satisfy the lords ?

this form of bell not only has a volume control, it also allows the rider to have two hands available for brakes/control

blush

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brooksby [3379 posts] 3 weeks ago
1 like
jpj84 wrote:

My big concern is that human ears are simply incapable of hearing bells: I was confronted by an old codger on a towpath recently, when I politely asked him if I could squeeze past - he gave an impolite rant about me not having a bell on my bike, when they were in fact mandatory. I politely pointed out that I had a bell on my bike, and had rung it three times before politely asking if I could squeeze through. 

Not the first time this has happened - people just seem to ignore bells entirely, so I always slow down to walking pace, on the assumption they haven't heard, or, worse, that they do hear, and leap to one side or another.

Some of them aren't accidentally ignoring them (ie. not hearing them) - I'm pretty sure that there are people out there who make a point of "I heard that bell, but I'm *&@#**# well not moving for a Bloody Cyclist (TM)!"

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brooksby [3379 posts] 3 weeks ago
0 likes
the little onion wrote:

Of course, if people actually followed highway code rule 56 "Dogs. Do not let a dog out on the road on its own. Keep it on a short lead when walking on the pavement, road or path shared with cyclists or horse riders.", then we wouldn't have that problem.

That'll never happen.  I've never met anyone who knew that rule even existed...

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Mungecrundle [1001 posts] 3 weeks ago
0 likes

Just this lunchtime, narrow back road, 2 guys mixing concrete on one side in a parking bay?? I slow down as they have their backs to me when 1 suddenly steps backwards into my path. I was aware this might happen and prepared with an "Oi, Oi". I could of used a bell had I one fitted and maybe that would be more appropriate as a warning before it was needed, a cheerful pre warning as it were.

Thinking about it, I might go fit a bell to my commuting bike.

 

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cyclisto [396 posts] 3 weeks ago
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There isn't any reasonablely priced and accessed solution for drop bars that will not mitigate bicycle control.

So if I had to use one it wouldn't be just with dubious safety results, but actually really dangerous. Brifters took a long time to evolve and make us happy and safe, why go back?

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Burke [5 posts] 3 weeks ago
1 like
hawkinspeter wrote:

Nicely written article - I agree with the points raised.

I don't mind having a bell on my bikes and I do use them from time to time. However, I can't see any instance when they would prevent an incident as you can always just shout or slow down instead of using a bell. Also, using a bell doesn't mean that you shouldn't slow down if someone doesn't respond (e.g. a deaf person on a shared use path isn't going to react to a bell). On the roads, a bell is completely useless as drivers aren't going to be able to hear it or won't react even if they do.

Most cyclist-pedestrian incidents I've seen or heard of occur as a result of someone making a last-second move or change in direction, i.e. a pedestrian stepping out onto the road. A bell will certainly not help in that type of situation. This all smacks of someone who really doesn't have a clue coming up with a non-sensical "solution" to make it appear as though they are doing something.

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hirsute [341 posts] 3 weeks ago
0 likes
Burke wrote:

Most cyclist-pedestrian incidents I've seen or heard of occur as a result of someone making a last-second move or change in direction, i.e. a pedestrian stepping out onto the road. A bell will certainly not help in that type of situation. This all smacks of someone who really doesn't have a clue coming up with a non-sensical "solution" to make it appear as though they are doing something.

Closest I have had was on a rainy day and on a 2 lane one way, a bloke crossed the road (ignoring the pedestrian crossing). Just over halfway, he decided to rapidly turn round and I just managed to swerve round him. Don't think the umbrella helped his observations.

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brianlescargot [8 posts] 3 weeks ago
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I have a Rockbros bell bought off eBay fitted to both of my gravel bikes as I tend to ride them on mixed paths and public areas they are pretty much essential and more for my safety rather than the safety of the pedestrians ahead of me although most folks do usually appreciate and advance warning of your approach. Major issue is people with headphones on who just don't hear the bell no matter how loud it is. And those Rockbros bells are really loud and cheap as chips. I see no benefit having one fitted to my road bike as generally any incident that happens on the road is so sudden there is no time to ring a bell..

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DoctorFish [139 posts] 3 weeks ago
1 like

I have one on my gravel/do anything bike as I ride it on shared paths.  When I ding my bell I get various reactions, ranging from:

- Completely ignored

- A thank you and moving to one side

- If it is a couple they tend to change sides of the path and are as much in the way as before

- Turning to see what is going on, while standing right in the middle of the path.

I ring it, but I find that a cheery "good morning/afternoon" works just as well if not better.

I don't have a bell on my road bike, because there is no one to ring it at.  Except one day, on a narrow road which an elderly couple were walking straight down the middle of.  I called a cheery "good morning".  They stood to one side  and as I passed the lady muttered "get a bloody bell".  I wonder what difference a bell would have made, and why would that have been politer than a "good morning".  So I just considered her as being a grumpy, cycle hating, old lady and carried on my ride.

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BehindTheBikesheds [2116 posts] 3 weeks ago
0 likes
EK Spinner wrote:

is simply calling out "Ding Ding" going to satisfy the lords ?

this form of bell not only has a volume control, it also allows the rider to have two hands available for brakes/control

blush

On the rare occasion I encounter pedestrians on the same strip (not waiting to cross or walking on roads as I employ a different method) this is exactly what I do, slowing down, using a friendly 'ding ding', wait for them to acknowledge and then pass slowly. If they don't acknowledge give as much space as can and come past slowly. t'aint rocket science and honestly i think human voice is less antagonsistic overall and as mentioned more audible to some with hearing issues. it's the pitch that people cannot hear apparently. 

This diverting away from the real issues is typical by anti cycling politicians, you only need look at the bullshit bell rules (they aren't laws ffs!) in Australia including an actual fucking fine which in itself is unlawful extortion. Total and complete madness!

If this was enforced here and indeed any plastic hat law I'd tell plod to take a running jump. Fortunately at least some of our police have an understanding of the problems and checking for whether a cyclist has a bell fitted would be shown the contempt it deserves!