Cyclists ringing bells: considerate or annoying?

So there you are, walking along a "shared" path, authorised for use by pedestrians as well as cyclists.

Somewhere behind you, there is a universally familiar sound – the ringing of a bell as someone on a bike approaches.

Do you say to yourself: "Ah, a considerate cyclist." Or do you think: "How rude!"

When, and how, to use a bell is one of the more vexing issues in the sometimes troubled relationship between pedestrians and riders. Read any comments thread that touches on the subject, and you're likely to find people complaining about cyclists who use their bells - and cyclists who don't use their bells.

The dislike of treadly tintinnabulation is such a cliche it even showed up on last week's Family Feud TV game show as one of the top answers to the question, "name something annoying a cyclist might do".

So what are the rules and regulations? According to Australian Road Rule 258, it is a legal requirement to have a "bell, horn or similar warning device, in working order", attached to your bicycle.

It's not there just for show, either. In the Victorian government's advisory on "sharing roads and paths", under the heading "be courteous", is encouragement to "use your bell, or voice, when approaching pedestrians and other bicycle riders". Similar advice is offered by relevant authorities in other states.

But it's a tricky thing to do because, as most cyclists will attest, you're never quite sure what the response to a warning "trrringggg" might be.

(A) Ideally, those up ahead will keep moving predictably, or maybe shift to the left to allow extra room to pass.

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(B) Some people might startle and move in an unexpected direction, while groups of people might scatter randomly. What was a simple passing manoeuvre has now become more complicated.

(C) Some people simply don't hear you. It might be that they're lost in their own thoughts, hard of hearing, or have their ears plugged with a sound system. If and when the sound does get through, get ready for an even more startled version of (B).

(D) Then there are those who steadfastly refuse to acknowledge you, or respond with irritation. Or they might be (C), trending to (B).

Faced with these difficulties, it's tempting to ride past without giving any signal, if there is enough room.

But it's often not a wise or polite thing to do. I wrote previously about the shock I got when a bloke on a bike came rushing past me while I was walking on a shared path near the Sydney Harbour Bridge  – he'd given me heaps of room, but I still nearly jumped out of my skin. It's an experience I recall whenever I ride past walkers. 

So what's the best way to do it? Sophie Bartho of Bicycle NSW says cyclists should "ring your bell well in advance, always pass slowly at a safe distance".

A lot of it has to do with attitude, she adds. "The bell should be a friendly 'tingle', not a jarring 'ring ring ring'. Always use it with respect and courtesy, and the best finale is a 'thank you' and a wave."

Shared paths have their place, but ideally, riders and walkers should be separated on busy thoroughfares. Even though a report to the NSW government stated that "the perception of danger is much greater than the actual risks of bicyclists and pedestrians on shared paths", no one likes to feel at risk, and authorities should be pressured by walkers and riders alike to provide better facilities when needed.

In the meantime, we need to find ways to get along. So I'm interested to know – what are your feelings about bicycles and bells?

As a pedestrian, as a cyclist – as a fellow member of the human race?

It's unscientific, of course, but for an easy option, please vote in the poll, and give your thoughts in the comments section below. And hey, people, work with me here – let's try and keep it constructive?

To encourage constructive debate, this blog will be carefully moderated; please stay on topic.

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