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Cycling and the law – bicycle bells

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 RWK Goodman.

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