To bell or not to bell

I was biking through the arboretum the other day on my way back from a jaunt through Gatineau Park, enjoying relatively warm weather and a leisurely pace as befits a multi-user pathway typically chock full of pedestrians, dog walkers and rollerbladers, when I overtook a cyclist on an empty stretch of path.

“You should use your bell when you’re overtaking someone,” he admonished as I moved past him. He didn’t sound startled — he had a helmet-mounted mirror and started speaking before our bikes overlapped — he was just being a scold.

I didn’t say anything. I just kept riding. I didn’t feel like wasting the good feeling of a great ride on someone with an odd sense of reasonable precaution.

But I did check what the law says as well as my own head about why I didn’t alert him (whether by bell or by voice) as I rolled by.

The law

Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act says the following:

Every motor vehicle, motor assisted bicycle and bicycle shall be equipped with an alarm bell, gong or horn, which shall be kept in good working order and sounded whenever it is reasonably necessary to notify pedestrians or others of its approach.

R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 75 (5).

I’ll get out in front of this. Not all my bikes have bells — or gongs for that matter. I rationalize this by saying that cars — the real enemy — can’t hear them and pedestrians are better served by an audible but gentle verbal attention getter: “Passing on your left”, “Control your dog”, “Stop moving”, “Put the weapon down” or whatever. Sometimes I’m so surprised “Hey!” is all I can manage.

When to notify

The law says I am to notify someone of my approach when “reasonably necessary.” Which seems reasonable to me. I’m not a lawyer. But it seems to me, it would be reasonably necessary to bell someone if I perceived that, without intervention, there was a significant risk of an accident.

In the case of my mirror-sporting, slow moving fellow cyclist I don’t think it was reasonably necessary to bell him. He was riding steadily on one side of the path. There was no oncoming traffic and I had all sorts of space to overtake him. Maybe he saw me in his mirror, maybe he didn’t but I had no reason to think that — unless, I startled him, say, by belling or yelling — he would divert from his line.

To bell or yell, in my view would have been decidedly unreasonable. Rude. Dangerous, even. If I startled him, he might swerve into my path or lose control of the bike. When I’m overtaking another driver in my car, I don’t honk — unless the other driver starts moving into my lane or doing something else which causes me a problem. Why would I bell someone who isn’t causing me a problem or creating a hazard?

If not for that, when?

I do bell/yell on MUPs when:

  • There are kids/new riders pedalling erratically
  • Pedestrians walking three or four abreast make it unsafe to overtake
  • A single pedestrian walking erratically or somewhere unusual — like smack dab in the middle of the pathway.
  • A group of pedestrians stopped in the middle of the pathway (conversing, taking a photo whatever)
  • A dog walker has their animal partially (less than a bike width) or completely blocking the path with their lead, or if it looks like they don’t have the animal under control
  • Rollerbladers or roller-skiers whose stride and/or poling crosses the middle of the path.

I hate when drivers honk at me just because they’re passing me. It’s fair if I’m weaving back and forth across the road (to tackle a nasty gradient or avoid potholes) but if I’m sticking to my line and they can get around me, there’s no need. The noise is needless stress.

Absent a significant risk of accident, I see no need to visit that upon people using the MUPs.


  1. I agree with all of your points. Along with my bell, I also have an air horn. Here is my system:

    No ding: You are cycling predictably, I’m going to overtake you.
    Ding: Hey, I am going to overtake you; keep doing what you’re doing.
    Ding ding ding ding ding: Hey, please stop moving erratically.
    Horn: Please stop backing up your motor vehicle without looking.
    Blasting horn: You should have your driver’s license suspended because you are a danger to others.

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