Ding, Ding

I’m surprised by the number of bicyclists I see who don’t have bells on their bikes. I suppose some might view them as childish and uncool, but I find them to be an important safety item and I think of them as the goodwill ambassadors of the bike trail.

Horns are for cars
I tried one of those super-loud air horns made for bicycles. I found it largely ineffective for getting the attention of motorists, but far too loud for use on multi-use paths and bike lanes. Every time I used the horn on a path to get someone’s attention, they practically leapt off the trail they were startled so badly. Needless to say, this is not an effective way to develop good relations between bicyclists and other trail users.

Approaching others carefully and politely builds goodwill and presents a positive image of bicyclists and bicycling, something we should all be trying to do.

Yelling is…well…yelling
The old “on your left” method for announcing your approach is OK among seasoned bicyclists because they’re accustomed to hearing it, but casual bicyclists and pedestrians have no idea what it means, particularly when it’s yelled at them from behind. Like the horn, more often than not it startles other trail users and reinforces the stereotype that bicyclists are rude and unsafe.

The friendly bell
Bells, if used properly, signal your presence to other non-motorized road and trail users in a gentle, polite manner. I think this is very important.

I usually ring my bell a couple of times from a fair distance to give others an opportunity to figure out where the sound is coming from, then, if they don’t respond, I slow and give a couple of more rings as I get closer. This works nearly 100% of the time and I rarely startle anyone.

Consider the friendly bell if you don’t already use one. Approaching others carefully and politely builds goodwill and presents a positive image of bicyclists and bicycling, something we should all be trying to do.

39 Responses to “Ding, Ding”

  • Duncan Watson says:

    I am a big bell fan. Bells don’t have a tone of voice, bells are cheerful and I lived in Germany where bells are required. Combined those factors made it so I will always put a bell on my bikes. I am considering the Airzounds for car interactions but the bell will stay.

    I use the bell in the same way as you though I almost always add a good morning/afternoon/evening as I get close. I also compliment anyone’s dog, because I like dogs and I love dogs that are under control.

  • Jeremy says:

    I agree. When on the trails and pathways, it is much nicer to present a pleasant ding ding, and pass slowly while saying a nice hello. I however don’t have a bell on my bike. My commute takes me nowhere near a pedestrian use pathway. I’m strictly on the highways, and main motor ways (which in my part of the world, really aren’t too busy). I can go up to 8 or 9 miles on the secondary highways without seeing a single vehicle. I’ve used those super-loud horns when I lived in town. They did work very well, especially in the winter time when you’re riding in the dark. Once I was almost taken out by a large loader clearing huge mounds of snow from the side roads. I blasted my horn, and he actually heard it over the noise of his diesel engine. Felt bad for not seeing me below his 10 foot high cab, and waived me on. I waived thanks back. Other times, it’s caused cars to lock up their brakes and avoid running me over (some stop signs are optional if you’re late for work and can’t take your lips off of that delicious latte). If you are going to run with the cars, you need their type of audible attention device. Loud horns do have their place. I’ve given up on using anything now, I haven’t had a situation where either a bell or a horn would be used the past several years. It’s kind of nice that way.

  • Matt says:

    If you’re going to have a jaunty, friendly-sounding bell, get a brass bell. The aluminum ones sound tinny (perhaps aluminumy should be a word), steel can be mixed, but brass virtually always sounds good. Ever hear a bell choir play? All those bells are brass. And you can get them chrome plated if you don’t want the brass color.

  • lady clay says:

    I’d love to use a bell, but I live in a big city and I’ve found that pedestrians tend to just tune out all traffic noise – which mysteriously seems to include bells. I don’t know why – it’s not like cars have bells – but they do. “On your left” isn’t perfect, but pedestrians do at least pay attention to it.

  • Tom says:

    I have a bell. I don’t use it much.

    I do think the bell has a tone of voice. It sometimes says “clear out. I’m comming up from behind and you better not slow me down”. Many times I’m in proper riding position, on the right of the path with plenty of room to pass, and I hear the bell behind me. I really don’t know what the bell wants me to do. I think the bell should just keeps it’s ding to itself and pass in a careful manner. It’s what we expect from motorized traffic. Why would we not practice it ourselves?

    Most trail users would be better served if the faster moving bike slowed down and passed when safe. That means it might have to wait for slower bikes to pass pedestrians and ruin the average mph for the trip.

  • placid casual says:

    a nice, brass bell will likely be my next cycling purchase but i’ll wait just a few days more…

    …just until the ecovelo photo contest winners are announced!

    …just incase…

  • Alan says:


    What is this “average mph” of which you speak? :-)

    Many of the trails I use are “multi-use paths”, meaning I’m likely to encounter walkers, joggers, bicyclists, and who knows what else. The behavior of a majority of the users resembles anything but traffic. It’s in those situations that I find the bell most effective.

  • brad says:

    I’m a bellman too ;-)

    It has come in very handy for me on the bike paths, especially when approaching kids, who always stop and stare, looking for the bell on the bike.

    Another good thing about a bell in a multicultural city is that it speaks in a universal language. Here in Montréal the predominant language is French but we get plenty of tourists who don’t speak it and may not understand “à votre gauche!”

    It’s also got a neutral tone. I get frustrated by the thousands of people who walk on the bike path despite the signs forbidding it (there’s a pedestrian walkway right next to most of the bike paths in town), and despite the $42 fine for walking on the bike path. Dinging the bell gets them out of my way without the confrontations that would doubtless ensure if they could hear the edge of anger in my voice.

  • artguy says:

    I have both a bell and an air horn and use both regularly. My bell is one of those thumb flick types and I have learnt how to control anything from a mild blik, blik to a resounding garalinging… I often combine a ring with an, “on your left”. Which I say as slowly and clearly as possible. Unfortunately that often causes people to actually move to the left so I’m always careful to wait to see a response before I sail on by. I do notice many other riders who yell it out at high speed while making their move. Let’s stop doing that OK.

    My horn works very well for traffic and I do get the attention of most car drivers. I ride a recumbent and in traffic sometimes I just need to know that I’ve been seen. I also have learnt to dampen down the air horn with a carefully placed finger in the horn which is fairly easy to do as I have under the seat steering and it’s mounted just below my seat. Unfortunately with the advent of cell phones and mp3 players some pedestrians don’t hear my bell like they used to and I’ve had to give ‘em the horn on occasion. I don’t like to do it, but when you’ve belled them and called out to them and they’re still off in their own little world… it’s horn time. They never appreciate it but they are out in the world. The world will periodically present itself to them no matter how hard they try to avoid it.

    Vancouver, Canada

  • Don says:

    On my daily commute I typically have several sections of multiuse path that I take. Most days there are a mixed group of users, dog walkers, runners, older couples out for a walk, etc. I have used the same strategy with a bell as Alan when approaching from behind. Dogs seem to be particularly aware of me when I ring the bell at a distance which in turn alerts the dog’s owner. This has worked well for me, I have even had people thank me for alerting them in this manner. I have not had more than a couple of negative responses in the last five or six years that I have used bells.

  • Thom says:

    I mostly ride the streets of a large city, and I’ve found that bells don’t work so great, even loud ones, if a person is in their car with the windows rolled up and the music on (or on their cell phone). That being said, I use mine regularly, if perhaps only to make myself feel better. If pressed, though, I’ve found that nothing gets a driver’s attention quite so well as a “few appropriate remarks” delivered at a good volume. However, I think a bell is a great ambassador, and I tend to use mine more to greet other cyclists than anything. Around here, though, they’re mostly all in spandex and going about 50mph, and if they bother to look up, they usually look at me like I’m crazy.

  • Thom says:

    One more thought: I think the use of a bell, even if it maybe isn’t the same as a car horn in terms of getting drivers’ attention, does at least demonstrate to those who are listening that bicyclists are conscious of signaling their presence, obeying traffic laws, being considerate, etc., etc. As Alan says, that’s hugely important.

  • RJ says:

    I also have an air horn and have found it to be VERY effective at catching the attention of distracted motorists. I’ve turned the driver’s head every time I’ve used it, which is its purpose (NOT PEDESTRIANS!). Particularly if I’m traveling down an arterial with a lot of cross streets– if a driver trying to cross the street doesn’t see me, a little BLAST!! and their head flips right around. I used to feel like maybe I was being too “offensive” with my LOUD horn, but then I realized that it’s still not quite as loud as a car horn, it sounds louder because I’m on a bike and not inside a steel vestibule, and it has to do with safety, not being polite. I also try to use the horn as seldom as possible.

    And sorry, Alan– I would think that you would figure out that an air horn is really NOT meant to be honked at pedestrians! Of course nobody wants to be blasted at with an air horn, no matter how softly you try to beep it!

    However, it’s not really a “pretty” accessory.. maybe THAT’s why you don’t like it. ;p :)

  • Eddie says:

    In Japan, a bike bell will work the same way for you while walking:


    …even on an escalator!

  • Thom says:

    @ RJ — Ha! He’s got you there, Alan! Even you might have a hard time taking a sexy photo of an air horn on your handlebars! I kid, I kid…

  • Alan says:

    Guilty as charged.. :-)

    Maybe my air horn wasn’t the right type, but I didn’t find it effective when directed at motorists. The thing is, they mostly ignore my car horn too unless I really lay into it. Maybe this is a California thing? Downtown, motorists are constantly honking and no one seems to care one way or the other… LOL.

  • RJ says:

    Oh yeah! I had forgotten you lived in California..

    I live in an isolated town of 35,000 or so. We don’t honk that often and the roads I get to ride may be a lot quieter.

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    Bells are great! Neutral and multi-lingual. Not for cars, and even some non-motorists don’t react to them. But if you can’t get someone’s attention politely, it’s arguably unproductive to escalate anyway. I don’t like verbal instructions like “on your left” because I think it’s too much information. If the people don’t know what to do when they hear the bell, I doubt verbal instructions will help them figure it out, at least not quickly enough.

  • Ows says:

    I don’t know if it happens in the States, but in Eurpoe, Kona provide a squeaky rubber gnome as a bell alternative (as, I assume, bells are “uncool”) – needless to say, it never graced my Smoke!
    My Specialized Globe City 6 came with a handlebar mounted bell, and while I shirked at first, I find myself using it more and more in recent weeks.

  • Croupier says:

    Bells make great gifts!

  • brett says:

    My Dutch bike came with a bell, of course, and I use it fairly often on bike paths and multi use paths (especially on bridges) in Portland. But I’ve been contemplating getting a loud horn, too, because I’ve just had too many oblivious drivers almost right hook me or pull out in front of me because they’re focused on other cars, not bikes. It’s a safety thing. When it’s cold and drizzly and their windows are rolled up (or in the summer when the car AC is on), I just don’t think the bell gets through. I’d never use a horn directed at pedestrians or other bikers, though.

    A friend of mine thinks that bells just sound too happy and friendly to Americans and therefore they don’t take it as a warning. It only takes about 5 minutes walking around Amsterdam or another bike friendly European city to get over that notion!

  • Bob Baxter says:

    Thanks for the film clip Eddie. I had seen it before but enjoyed seeing it again. The Japanese are much better trained than the folks in my town, who tend to walk 4 abreast on the paths and ignore my bell. Being a downhill skier, in my younger days, I learned early on to say “on your left/right” when passing. On the bike I add a word “I’m on your left” and people seem to understand me better. (I don’t yell) Maybe in time they will respond to the bell if I use it enough, us Arkies are slow learners. (I know, I know, it should be “we Arkies”)

  • Adrienne says:

    I love my brass bell- it sounds like an old bell hop bell. I keep waiting for a guy in a uniform to come see if I need help with my bags : )

    On the usage issue- I find bells to be great communicators in almost all situations, even heavy city traffic (if the bell doesn’t work then I am in a situation where I need my voice, not a horn). The only time they don’t work is with pedestrians who are wearing earphones. My main commute path in the East Bay is mixed use because of lazinesses (there is a ped path separate from the 2 way bike path, clearly marked, but the walkers insist on using the marked bike path), and the folks who are plugged into their IPods never hear the bell. It drives me crazy!

  • ksteinhoff says:

    I think I have the exact same bell as you. It’s brass and has the clearest, cleanest tone that seems to go on and on when you give it a little flick.

    I ran into a guy who had one on a local trail and had to make a beeline to the LBS where bought it just in time to snag the last one in stock.

    You have to put me into the AirZound camp, though. I’ll go several rides and never touch it and then I’ll have a day where the darned thing is nearly drained.

    I only use it on peds wearing earphones or gabbing on cellphones, walking two or three across, usually with dog,s who ignore my melodious bell, gentle “hello” and who are oblivious to me following them at wobble speed hoping that they will eventually connect with the Planet Earth.

    I don’t feel at all guilty if they have brown in their shorts after that.

  • beth h says:

    I collect bicycle bells. While looking for a better way to display them, they live lined up along the top of a wall in my home workshop. A nice-sounding bell makes all the difference, both for others on the road AND for my enjoyment of the ride:


  • Rick says:

    I have a hearing loss that happens to be in the same frequency range as most bike bells (and human female speech). I’m relatively slow as a cyclist, and I’ve hacked off more than one faster rider on the multiuse trail, because even with hearing aids I can’t hear a bike bell if it’s behind me. However, a nice loud “on your left” gets my attention, unless the other rider is female.

    In my area, I see a lot of retirement+ age folks out walking on the multiuse trail, and I bet a lot of them are in the same boat as I am.

    Rick in Arvada

  • roy says:

    I just say “Hello” as I approach.


  • Elaine says:

    “I often combine a ring with an, “on your left”. Which I say as slowly and clearly as possible. Unfortunately that often causes people to actually move to the left so I’m always careful to wait to see a response before I sail on by. I do notice many other riders who yell it out at high speed while making their move. Let’s stop doing that OK.”

    I’m in the same camp as artguy; I find that a mix of techniques seems to have the best effect, except vs. the totally oblivious headphone wearers. (Or teenage boys. I have a hilarious story about having to yell at a track team kid, BY NUMBER, before he had even the slightest idea I was there.)

  • Julie Pecenco says:

    I find my bell most useful in parking lots. People walking too and from their cars are oblivious to me on my bike (probably because the bike is quieter than a car and they never expect anything but cars.) Works for clueless pedestrians in other places as well, but parking lots are the worst.

    It’s also good to say hi to people I know as I ride by them (it’s a small town; there’s always someone you know.)

    I have a Mirrycle Brass Duet Incredibell – a nice sound, and loud enough for it to be actually heard. Most of the others I tried were useless toys.

  • doug says:

    I used to commute on the highway between a small town and a smaller town in Northern California. One evening a towtruck was obstructing the wide shoulder/bike lane, and the operator was walking around doing whatever towtruck operators do before driving off with a car. As I approached, I didn’t want him to step into my path, so I gave a little ring to let him know a bicycle was breezing by. Apparently I startled him, because a mile or two down the road he scared the shit out of me by laying on his horn for a good ten seconds passing me.

  • Stephen says:

    I love bicycle bells. I use them on all my bicycles. No, they don’t work well around cars. But they work great among peds and cyclists. It’s a great mindfucker, if you will. A bell? What? Yes, here I am—hello, and bless you.

    Bells for everyone!

  • John P. says:

    I’m a great fan of bells on bikes and I’m always gratified when I am thanked for using it. However, I gave up on the ding ding type of bell as I found that hardly anyone responded to it. The sound seems to be non-directional and people can’t tell where it’s coming from. I’ve even had a few folk reaching for their mobile phone when they heard the ding ding.

    I now use a traditional bell which can give a quiet or loud ring as required. I find that people respond to a ringing far better than to a ding ding.

    However, both types of bells become useless if someone has an mp3 player plugged into their skull. The only thing that would get their attention is an air horn!

  • Ron Georg says:


    I’m with Tom. Cars don’t need to honk at me to pass safely; I know they’ll be there. Even if I don’t hear them (some of those hybrids are sneaky), they don’t surprise me.

    When I’m walking on our local parkway (which is very rarely, I’ll admit), I feel the same way about bikes. I walk to the right, and they can pass easily. I find it annoying when someone feels the need to alert me as they pass (sorry–it hardly feels like a blessed greeting to me). What is it they want?, I wonder. Are they about to hit me? Do I need to react?

    I also lived in Germany for a while, as someone noted. There were times the bell-ringing was so constant it was pointless. It was like being in a swarm of brass-winged locusts–I realized they were harmless, but I wished they weren’t so noisy.

    Someone else pointed out that American trail users are oblivious, often spreading out across the trail. I agree, that’s a pain in the butt. That’s one of the few times a bell does strike me as appropriate, since these people deserve to be startled into action. Even striping and signage don’t seem to help on multi-use paths. Still, I find that snapping my brake levers (not to mention my noisy brakes) usually gets their attention, and it puts my hands on the brakes, where they belong for maneuvering around other trail users.

    I would be willing to bet that many pedestrians find the jingling to be jangling. Assuming that everyone thinks your bell emits a pretty little jingle is akin to believing everyone wants to enjoy your cologne because it gives you such a rush.

    Even so, I do see Alan’s point, and I may get one of those pretty little brass bells. After all, my car does have a horn, even if neither gets much use.

    Happy Trails,
    Ron Georg

  • Anouk says:

    I must say, having grown up in Holland where a bell is a mandatory item on a bike, I have had many confused looks here at the ring of my bell here in the States. Personally I don’t like the ‘on your left’ so much. I hate to yell at people or being yelled at, and that’s to me what it feels like. I notice though, that more and more bikes are ringing bells now and I’m happy for that!

  • BlackBear says:

    To Bell Or Not to Bell, THAT is the question! Unless I’m riding with my wife and kids, I’m a pretty fast rider and while I DO have a very loud baritone voice, I’ve found that no method is foolproof. In fact, I’ve noticed that I won’t get consistent results from the same bike path “regulars” two days in a row!

    On Monday I passed a lady walking a gorgeous Great Dane and used my bell. The dog of course whipped around to see what was ringing, the lady saw me, we said “Hi” and all was well. On Tuesday I was coming up behind the same lady walking the same dog… the dog turned to see what had rung the bell (predictable) but the lady continued walking down the middle of the path without looking around or acknowledging my presence with the dog on her left. Do I run off the path on the left? Pass on her right? I said, “excuse me” and passed on her right where there was more room and less chance of being run into the ditch.

    So which is better? Maybe it is an unanswerable question?

  • Eddie says:

    Yes, BlackBear, your inquiry may be one of those inscrutably Zen situations ;-)

  • pdferguson says:

    I don’t like “On your left” for the reasons others have mentioned. I prefer to say “Behind you”, because that alerts walkers, who generally will turn around and look at you, decreasing the chances they will step in front of you as you pass.

    I haven’t put bells on my bikes, but I am considering it. It also appears useful for mountain biking, where I often find myself on a narrow path with blind corners. I see many mountain bikers give a quick ding of the bell as they approach, which seems to be a good practice.

  • spiny norman says:

    Tom’s right. Bells are useless in city traffic (drivers can’t hear them and squealing brakes are the only thing that work on jaywalkers), and on shared paths you’re supposed to ride so that you don’t need one. If you want to ride fast and unimpeded, ride out in the country.

    I have bells because I like them, they’re legally required and the cops fixate on them when they want to harass cyclists, but they’re only really useful for saying hi to people riding the other way.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    Yesterday I saw a driver on my commute who was planning on making a left from a cross-street. He was peering to his right ignoring the 2 cyclists coming up on his left. I rang my bell a couple of times and his head SNAPPED back to look at me. So at least on driver with windows down hears a bell.

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