Knock, knock. Who’s there? Isabelle…

<em>Picture: eblaser</em>
Picture: Evan Blaser

Last month, an account of a day spent pottering about in the Peak District led to some interesting discussion in the comments about whether a bell on a bicycle is not just necessary, but legally required. Cyclists approaching walkers from behind can be hard to hear, especially if there’s a headwind, and a neat tring! on a bell would help in preventing scares and collisions.

But is it actually a legal requirement? And is it understood as such at the point of sale? I went for a trawl round various bike outlets in Stirling to see how they understood the situation.

First stop, Recyke-a-bike, a community-based project that began life in Fallin in 2006 and moved into an old builders’ supply showroom in Stirling last year. Because the bicycles available for purchase here are all second-hand reconditioned models, the requirements with regard to bells don’t apply. The Recyke-a-bike mechanics do fit reflectors on to wheels – another legal necessity for new bikes – but they don’t fit bells unless on request. “We keep a box of bells,” said one of the mechanics, “but most people don’t want them.”

On to the main independent bike shop in Stirling, Stewart Wilson Cycles. This is a traditional, busy outlet for new bikes, and also offers a repair service. The requirement for new bikes to leave the shop fitted with bells was well known here – and trading standards officers do from time to time drop by. The law extends back up the production line to the manufacturers – Specialized, Dawes and so on – who supply their gleaming new steeds complete with bells. These, however, are not usually fitted, this being something the shop does later in the process.

Stewart Wilson couldn’t remember quite when the bell legislation came in, but felt it was five or six years ago, starting life as a UK requirement before becoming part of broader European Union law.

Finally, to the edge-of-town trading estate and the main cycle chain – pardon the pun – Halfords. Here, on the upper floor, above the wheel trims and stereos for cars, a nuance came to light. Not all new bikes have to be sold with a bell fitted, only those with wheels 16 inches or more in diameter. This might sound odd, and 16 inches might sound big, but all it means is that bikes for toddlers are excluded from the legislation. Bikes with wheels smaller than 16 inches tend to be pink or blue, covered with stickers of cutesy cartoon animals, and are ridden by children aged under five.

As at Recyke-a-bike and Stewart Wilson Cycles, the Halfords staff were chatty and helpful – and another bonus piece of information emerged. Stewart Wilson had already mentioned that cyclists are legally required to wear helmets in Australia and New Zealand, and by chance it turned out that one of the Halfords assistants was Australian born and raised.

“Everyone who rides a bike in Australia has a helmet on,” he said, adding that the police do enforce this, stopping anyone caught cycling along a public road without a lid. He himself had even been stopped for not having his helmet strap done up tightly enough. Not wearing a helmet can lead to a charge and a fine, although a first offence often just prompts a warning.

Whether such a requirement will ever enter law in the UK or the wider EU area is unclear – there doesn’t appear to be a massive lobby for it just now. Also, the argument is sometimes made that, while helmets are generally a good thing in the event of an accident, they do have the potential to prompt careless cycling, even cocky cycling. It’s akin to the theory that, while solo hillwalkers are in trouble if they have an accident, those who do go out alone concentrate much more than they would in pairs or groups – and are therefore less likely to have an accident in the first place.

As for bells on bikes, they are unlikely ever to be universally popular – and it remains the case that the cyclist is perfectly entitled to unscrew the bell the instant they leave the shop. Jutting bits of metal on the handlebars have scope for injuring the mountainbiker, for whom coming off is a way of life. Serious road cyclists, with their lightweight racers, remove bells to save the little bit of weight. The main disincentive, however, is surely that, as bike-design has become ever more cool, bells simply don’t look the part.

Useful things, though – especially for pedestrians in the firing line.