The Meaning of Bicycle Bells

I get to Germany, and decide to go buy me a mountain bike, since I love to ride bikes.  I visit my local bike shop, where the gruff but lovable Herr Wagner sells me a Specialized HardRock.  He begins to screw a bicycle bell onto the handlebar.

"Oh, I won’t be needing that," I told him.

"Yes, you will."

"A bicycle bell?  I haven’t had a bicycle bell on my bicycle since I was ten years old.  It’ll probably fall off, anyway."

"You must have this," Herr Wagner said.  "It is…necessary" he said, searching for the English word.

"But it’s a mountain bike.  I don’t need a bell when I’m riding trails."

"You will not always be on trails.  And it is the law.  All bikes must have a bell.  This is a crowded country.  I give it to you free."

"Well, alright then."

So I figured that since I’ve got a bell on my bicycle, I might as well use it.  When I came up behing people on the sidewalk or on a trail, I gave them a friendly little ding!  In the United States, it’s considered courteous to give pedestrians a brief verbal warning when you cycle past them.  I figured that in Germany, the bell was what you used to give a friendly warning.

I soon noticed that whenever I rang the bicycle bell to tell people I was approaching, people’s heads would whip around to me.  Or they’d jump immediately to one side — and I mean immediately.  One guy, walking alone on a fairly narrow trail near a hedge, actually jumped into the hedge and worked himself a little way in, before eyeing me in fright and resentment as I bicycled by.  People walking dogs would pull little Fido’s chain so hard and so quickly that I was afraid Fido’s neck would break.

"Man, these Germans sure are high-strung," I thought to myself unheedingly.  I began to secretly enjoy ringing the bell and watching the people jump as if they’d received an electric shock.  It was as if I were a king or a mafia boss — everyone immediately jumped to their feet in my presence.  Finally, a biker was getting the respect he deserved.

Then I went bicycleing with a few German friends.  We came up to a group of people and I rang my bell.  The group scattered, as always.  My German friends said "what did you do that for?!"  "I was just giving them a friendly warning," I said innocently.  "So they knew we were coming."  Then my friends explained to me: "No, no no!  You only ring the bell when you absolutely have to.  Otherwise, you do not need to say anything."

As I found out, bicycle etiquette is different in Germany (or at least in my part of Germany) than it is in the U.S.  If you can bicycle past someone and leave a meter between you and them, you just do it without saying anything.  If it’s going to be somewhat closer, you may wish to make a sound or announce "bicycle" (Fahrrad), so they know not to make any sudden movements as you ride past. 

You ring the bell only when the people walking on the trail have to move in order to let you ride by.  That is, you will hit them, or will have to stop, if they don’t move to the side.  The people who were walking alone on the trail always reacted the most urgently to the bell.  This is because they knew they weren’t blocking the path — there was plenty of room for me to cycle right past them.  So when I rang the bell, the message I was sending them was "I do not have full control of my bicycle, and might run into you unless you move right now!"  Understandably, they did just that.

Now, of course, I understand the rules, and often go riding for hours without ever using my bell.  I’m just glad I didn’t make the same kind of cross-cultural mistake when I was riding in Texas.  Because then, somebody would probably have shot me…

34 thoughts on “The Meaning of Bicycle Bells

  1. Next time you’re cycling in Britain, with the exception of small children, from whom a little ding ding is generally considered quite charming, it’s the same rule in the UK as in Germany.


  2. Thats hilarious 🙂 I never thought about that. I guess germans are conditioned to alarm signals.

    This story reminds of my childhood when a normal bell wasn’t enough for little me. I had to use a whistle (like those for PE teachers) to “warn” pedestrians. The shocking effect was even better because it almost always scared the hell out of every pedestrian. Ahh…funny childhood 🙂


  3. The general rule in Germany is not to bother each other unless necessary. So people will walk/ drive/ live next to each other without much communication.

    That’s different from the most parts of the U.S., but perhaps not so much different from the crowded U.S. places as New York City, for instance.


  4. You know the headlamp flasher (Lichthupe) on your car?

    You drive on the freeway (autobahn) and a slow car drives to your lane, forcing you to slow down. You cold use your “Lichthupe” to warn him: “Hey. I’m much faster than you. Is it really necessary to force me to break down from 200 to 100 km per hour?”

    But you are not permitted to do so. Using your “Lichthupe” is necessitation (Nötigung) – an element of a crime (Straftatbestand)! You are only permitted to use your “Lichthupe” for danger prevention. You are not even permitted to set your left turn signal (Blinker) in order to notify the car in your front, you like to pass it (überholen).

    I never understood this feeling of being offended, when someone tries to point out that you were inattentively.

    P.S. Excuse my “Dictionary-English”


  5. The typical reaction when ringing the bell:
    People turn their head to check what’s coming, and by that completely loose their ability to walk straight forward. So they lurch from one side of the way to the other. Then they realize they’re completely blocking the way, so they head back for the original side. By then, you already had to stop and wait to see for which side they will finally aim. Of course this gets more complicated if there are several people. 😉

    Thats exactly why I have a bell, but never use it. If I can get by them, slow and with a comfortable safety distance, I do. If not, I’ll simply wait for a better chance.


  6. Lol.. This is funny. So much of difference in the cultures 🙂
    In India, people go around ringing the bell even if no one is in front of them cos you never know when someone darts right on your path without a warning 😦

    And others do it just for the heck of the sound! 😀


  7. Normally it is unnecessary to ring the bell as long as you stick to the road or the bycicle lane.
    When I go by bicycle I use the bell when I am not sure if people at the side of the bycicle lane or of the road have seen me and prevent them from stepping into my way.
    Riding on the sidewalk, in the Fußgängerzone (pedestrian area) or on narrow hiking trails is the reason for the somewhat bad repute of bycicle drivers. Ringing the bell in such a situation makes it even worse.


  8. Indian cities are quite crowded and noisy. Cycles ringing their bells & cars honking. It is not considered impolite out here but rather it serves as a sign to let people know you are coming from behind. Some truck drivers are so good at honking that they’re able to crude mimick a popular hindi song with the honking!


  9. I used to live in Houston Texas and enjoyed riding my bicycle along the trail beside Bray’s bayou. I had a bell which I would ring when approaching slower travelers along the trail. For fellow riders it would usually be sufficient but for the walkers it didn’t always work. I then changed to an electric horn of 110 decibels. Yes, it was rather loud but I used it quite sparingly. On one ride two ladies were completly blocking the trail. They were facing me as I approached and one lady moved about 3 inches to one side. This wasn’t enough room so I slowed to give her more time to moove. She didn’t moove over any more so I slowed to a walking pace. As I passed her I pressed the horn button, this apparently got her attention and she jumped and yelled. I then politley explained that this was a multi-use trail (There were signs stating it was multi-use) and that it was polite to move over to allow others to pass. She then went off in a tirade about how important she was and that she was some sort of elite user of the trail. I felt like saying a few four letter words but instead rode off down the trail though I did give the horn another toot.



  10. When I was in the United States (San Francisco, CA to be more precise) I decided to walk the Golden Gate Bridge (I think only tourists do that). Some byciclist approached from behind and shouted “LEFT”. What she meant was that she is going to pass on the left hand side, but I misunderstood and jumped to the left. We did not collide .. which was regrettable because she was kind of hot.


  11. Great Article!

    Riding a bike in Germany is really a joy 🙂 How miss it…

    The Brazilian Jornalist/Critic wrote something about the germans and their bycicles in “Ein Brasilianer in Berlin”(


    Für die Brasilianer ist eine der touristischen Attraktionen Berlins, Menschen zu beobachten , die brav warten, bis die Ampel auf Grün schaltet, um die Straße zu überqueren. Das erscheint uns fast wie ein Wunder, ist Stunden der Betrachtung, tief schürfender Kommentare und erstaunter Briefe an die Freunde wert. Was den Fahrzeugverkehr angeht, ist die Verwunderung noch größer, und wenn ein Berliner sich über den Verkehr beschwert, denken die Brasilianer, er mache einen Scherz.
    In Brasilien ist alles oft genau das Gegenteil von dem, was in Deutschland geschieht. Es heißt, wenn zwei Deutsche eine Straße ohne Ampel überqueren und einer von ihnen sich erschrickt, weil plötzlich ein Wagen auftaucht, dann sagt der andere: „Nicht erschrecken, der hat uns schon gesehen!”
    Man erzählt sich auch die Geschichte eines Ausländers (wer weiß, vielleicht eines Deutschen) in einem Taxi in São Paulo, der dauernd die Augen schloss, weil der Fahrer an keiner roten Ampel hielt. Aber bei der ersten Ampel, die auf Grün schaltete, hielt der Fahrer einen Augenblick. Entsetzt fragte der Gast, warum. „Ach, bei Grün muss man halten”, erklärte der Fahrer, „weil manchmal ein Verrückter aus der anderen Straße kommt.”
    Man könnte also meinen, eher ertrinkt ein Olympiaschwimmer in einem Kinderschwimmbecken, als dass ein Brasilianer in Berlin angefahren wird. Weit gefehlt. Wir haben beide, meine Frau und ich, noch immer das Überqueren der am stärksten befahrenen Straße von Rio de Janeiro über lebt, wurden aber in Berlin schon mehrmals angefahren. Ich halte den Rekord. Mich traf es etwa achtmal, jeweils ohne größere Folgen, nur hier und da mal ein Verstauchen, oder es kamen empörte Proteste derjenigen, die mich angefahren hatten. Ja, denn ich wurde nicht von Autos, Bussen oder Lastwagen angefahren, sondern von dem schrecklichsten, unerbittlichsten und bedrohlichsten Vehikel, das durch die Straßen Berlins fährt: dem Fahrrad.
    Ich habe mittlerweile so viel Angst davor, dass ich mich neulich, als ich in der Ferne eine Horde von Radfahrern erblickte, die noch ausgelassener als sonst war, weil die Sonne gerade einen ihrer fünfjährlichen Auftritte hatte, schleunigst hintereinen Baum flüchtete, bis die vorbei war, mit einer Geschwindigkeit, die ihr bestimmt eine gute Qualifikation bei der Tour de France gesichert hätte.
    Wenn es etwas Heiligeres gibt als den Zahlteller*, dann ist es der Fahrradweg. Die Vorübergehenden haben mich nur wahrgenommen – und mich dann angesprochen, als hätten sie mich bei einer Verschwörung zum Sturz der Regierung ertappt -. wenn ich nicht aufgepasst hatte und auf einem Fahrradweg stehen geblieben war. Oder wenn ich unfreiwillig anhielt, wie an bestimmten Stellen, wo die Bustür sich genau auf den Fahrradweg öffnet. Beim Aussteigen muss man sportlich sein und sofort auf eine sichere Stelle springen, weil dort bestimmt irgendeine Fahrradpatrouille wartet. Denn wenn ich länger als zwei Sekunden zögere, habe ich einen Lenker im Rücken und muss mir unflätige Kommentare über meinen Geisteszustand anhören. Ich glaube, ich werde nie wieder im Leben ein Fahrrad ansehen können, ohne zu erzittern.
    Aber es gibt auch immer eine positive Seite. In diesem Fall hat die Wissenschaft einen kleinen Fortschritt gemacht, denn ich glaube, ich bin der erste nachgewiesene Fall einer Krankheit, die zur Epidemie werden kann und für die ich den Namen Bicyclophobia berlinensis vorschlage. Es gibt noch kein Heilmittel dagegen, aber durch Straßen mit Bäumen zu laufen hilft die Symptome zurückzudrängen. Und natürlich den Radlern zu entgehen.
    *kleiner Teller, auf den man in Geschäften das Geld zum Bezahlen legt
    Quelle: Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro: Ein Brasilianer in Berlin. Frankfurt a. M. 1994.


  12. Very interesting.I lived in Germany for three years, riding my bike without a bell. My wife and I were stationed (USAF) at Hahn AB in the Mountains, so bike/pedestrian traffic was minimal. I miss Germany, the people were GREAT and the countryside was awsome.
    We live in Saint Paul, MN. and I wish Biking was as popular here as it is in Europe – esp. AMSTERDAM! Thanks for some great insight!


  13. Oh man, I’ve just read the comments, and they are wonderful. When I visited India, I was also delighted by the constant use of bells and horns. I came to the conclusion that in India, the default rule is to use your bell or horn every 5 seconds. If you don’t make a sound, it indicates you have lost consciousness…

    The excerpt from the Brazilian in Berlin was also priceless. Like the author, I also had to learn what the small dish on the countertop was for. Even to this day, I sometimes forget where I live, and expect the cashier in a store to just put the change right into my hand, the way it’s done in the United States.

    I stick out my hand, only to watch as the cashier’s hand approaches mine, then moves to one side, and then deposits the change in the little tray. Usually, I get an amused glance from the cashier, who sometimes seems to assume that I want to create hand contact to flirt with her. Or him.

    As for Sao Paulo, God only knows how people survive that city. I was once there and got into a taxi on the side of a major 6-lane street on the side of one of the biggest public squares in the city. I told the driver where I wanted to go, which was in the opposite direction from where the cab was pointing. No problem, he said. He turned 90 degrees, and plunged directly into the traffic, at a complete perpendicular angle. People slammed on their brakes and honked as they approached the side of our cab, but they weren’t really angry. From the back seat of the cab, shaking in fear, I could see the drivers of the cars approaching us, whose faces registered mild frustration. Eventually, after bringing three lanes of busy traffic to a complete halt, we made it to the other side of the road…


  14. The thread is really very amusing. I currently live in Boston and am used to people just rushing past me on bikes – no warning of approach is given. It seems to be similar to the situation in Germany. But I grew up in India and remember the tough time I faced when the bell broke on my bike. This happened when I was in grade 6 or 7. One particular incident I shall always remember. Once, while coming back from my friend’s place in the evening, I took a short cut through a narrow, almost dark alley. My bike was well oiled, and so absolutely silent. Before I knew it I had collided with a buffalo standing right in the middle of the road. In my defense, it had no business being there and was completely invisible against the dark background, itself being jet black in color. I fell in some dung, ruined my clothes and gave a million curses to the owner who let the animal wander around. When I came back home, mom created such a hue and cry at my state! Of course, I had to shower for hours just to get the stench out of me. My ruined clothes went in the garbage. But our servant managed to wash my bike to a spotless clean shine. He didn’t stop at that. He berated me for not having a bell on my cycle and blamed that on the accident. When I pointed out that even if I had a bell, it was too dark and that was why I hit the bovine, his argument was that if I had rung the bell, the buffalo would have moved out of the way. To this day I am not sure if that is true. Would an animal, quietly and contendedly (is that a word?) chewing its cud in peaceful repose, move itself out of the way simply because it heard some tinkling noise coming? I like to imagine that it would just treat it as soothing music to put it to sleep.

    But seriously, you do need a bell if you are bicycling in India. You have to be ready to ring your bell all the time. If you are driving, the worse for you. The four-legged animals might still be better than the two-legged kind. You have to ring your bell continuosly to get people to make way for you; even then many times they simply ignore you. My dad once had a heated exchange with a bunch of teen girls. They were walking right in the middle of the road, five astride. When my dad came up behind them and honked, they just continued on as if nothing happened. Finally my dad had to come out of the car and ask them to move to the side. Their responce – “Can’t you wait till we have reached the end of the street?”. Of course! My dad, an Army Colonel, let fly in full technicolor. 🙂


  15. Here is the film which wants funny and which, in fact, is not him(it) really. We follow the events of an amateur cyclist who likes the cycle but who does not succeed in leaking out in the profession. As a result, he(it) passes by all the stages(stadiums): the despair, the doping, the anger, the enjoyment also! And thus, we meet to laugh in front of the misfortunes of Ghislain, in May


  16. My vivid memory is of being able to run through a crowd in the Netherlands because every person is aware of where people are around them, and they know immediately which way to react when someone is running past them. It seemed similar in Germany.

    Can’t do it in Australia because most people are almost oblivious to other people on the path or elsewhere. Then, if you are heading for them, it’s an equal bet which way they will move: to left or to right.

    You need a bell here all the time. The etiquette is to ring it loudly enough, but not too loudly. Indian bells are the best for this, IMHO, because you can muffle them down to a faint “ding”, or ring them loudly enough to stop an errant car driver.


  17. British Waterways are now advising London towpath cyclists to give pedestrians a couple of rings on the bell as they approach — the rather unfortunately named “two tings” campaign. Personally I use a whistle.

    I find as a cyclist that I’m most frustrated not by pedestrians wandering about willy nilly, but rather by cyclists who think that they can hog the side of the path away from the water regardless of which direction they’re going. In this country we ride and drive on the LEFT, dammit! I stick to the left, and am prepared to stop directly in front of them if they don’t return to their side of the path.

    I rang my bell once to alert a dog walker to my approach; he shouted at me as I passed “she’s a dog mate, she don’t understand!”. I shouted back “is it deaf?”, I mean, it’s not as if a bell takes a whole lot of advanced comprehension skills, is it? I assume deaf dogs are kept on tight leashes on towpaths, by the way…


  18. I have found, riding on shared paths in England, like canal towpaths for example, that when I ring my bell to let people know I am coming, they are offended. It is like they are saying, “wh do you think you are, telling me to get out of the way” They dont seem to realise it is courtesy and for their own benefit. Then they do not move aside. On the other hand, when I am walking, often a cyclist will zip right past me without warning, going very fast. This is extremely dangerous, as I have not heard them, and if I had moved in their path there would be the most horrendous accident. I live in Lancashire England.


  19. Interesting cultural differences… here in Sweden it is much the same as in Germay I guess.
    I recall once having a bicycle bell emitting a distinct “PING!!” sound – I used it to alert two middle-age women on a path, kind of blocking my way, and they jumped about two feet & looked quite frightened.
    Now I have a different bell which makes a more gentle sound, and it doesn’t seem to scare anyone.


  20. 😀 In the Netherlands it’s basically the same as in Germany. A bell means “get the hell outta my way, now!”

    In Amsterdam especially tourists tend to use the bike paths as sidewalk, and when they here a *ding* you can almost see them think “Oh, that was cute, what is that sound?” just before they have a near-death-experience by nearly colliding with a bike.

    The slightly more experienced tourists duck out of the way, and the locals were never on the bike path in the first place. 😀


  21. You seriously didn’t grasp that your behaviour was wrong when people were jumping off the trail and looking frightened?

    And you”…began to secretly enjoy ringing the bell and watching the people jump as if they’d received an electric shock.” Ever had the passenger in a car yell out the window as they were passing you? Feel like an electric shock?


  22. bike-bells, so last century…

    I use an air horn you fill up at a gas station to about 6 bar = about 90 psi, which gives you a honk volume of 115dB.

    This is how you get around in Heidelberg, even if not legally by StVO. You even surprise cars with that horn, which is great if a car takes your right of way. While having it installed on my bike, I drove around like carrying a gun (german perspective, not american, perhaps :):”Do I honk away those guys… naaah” and always used it in distance, maybe around 25 – 30 meters, which was great, because if people hear a bike-bell they tend to turn arround staring at you while standing in the middle of the road. That distance gives people time to choose between simply stepping aside or playing chicken. Which they lose almost every time, if I use the horn again, pretending to be a truck 🙂


  23. Sometimes there is a custom that is fairly well known and agreed upon in an area, and sometimes not. Also, the existence of a law or rule does not mean that people are aware of it or practice it.

    I had similar confusion when I moved to Washington, DC, and started spending time on the many miles and types of bike trails. The bell was required by the law, from what I read, and also to be rung when overtaking others on the path. However, I didn’t see that many others using bells and when I gave a courtesy “ding” (I picked a bell with the friendliest sound to be found) most people stopped and turned in the direction of the sound, making it more dangerous than just passing silently. Of course, when passing silently, some people would be startled into making a comment about warning. Thus: there was no winning, it seemed. Over time I have evolved an algorithm of knowing when and how to use the bell to warn so that a balance is made between safety, courtesy, and unobtrusiveness.

    Moving back to a smaller town in the Midwest US, I had to recalibrate to the point of rarely using the bell. People were simply so unaccustomed to bikes or multimodal transportation in general for the bell to be a casual communication. Even people walking a path labeled regularly in large letters with “BIKE ONLY” seem unable to fathom a bike was trying to pass them.


  24. Hii… My Name Yudisulistio From Indonesia, Do You have bell’s Collection,i like bells made in Jermany. can you send my photos your bell’s collections.


  25. I used to live in Houston Texas and enjoyed riding my bicycle along the trail beside Bray’s bayou. I had a bell which I would ring when approaching slower travelers along the trail. For fellow riders it would usually be sufficient but for the walkers it didn’t always work. I then changed to an electric horn of 110 decibels. Yes, it was rather loud but I used it quite sparingly. On one ride two ladies were completly blocking the trail. They were facing me as I approached and one lady moved about 3 inches to one side. This wasn’t enough room so I slowed to give her more time to moove. She didn’t moove over any more so I slowed to a walking pace. As I passed her I pressed the horn button, this apparently got her attention and she jumped and yelled. I then politley explained that this was a multi-use trail (There were signs stating it was multi-use) and that it was polite to move over to allow others to pass. She then went off in a tirade about how important she was and that she was some sort of elite user of the trail. I felt like saying a few four letter words but instead rode off down the trail though I did give the horn another toot.


  26. I am hoping that this maintenance period will fix the problems with the EZ Mode. Like others I am frustrated with what is going on….if it isn’t broke…why fix it??? It seems like the changes being made of late are only causing more problems for all of us.


  27. I always have a bell installed on my stainless steel bike and check if it is ringing fine, even though I don’t use it that much, since people are pretty much walking on the extreme side of the sidewalk, but when there are times that there’s a lot of people on my way and my visibility is hindered or my groceries bunched up my perforated metal basket, I just give them a short and sweet ding from my bell to get them to move.

    TITLE: Bicycle Etiquette
    BLOG NAME: German Impressions
    DATE: 11/28/2006 08:11:58 AM
    Andrew of the German Joys blog wrote a very amusing post about how to use a bicycle bell in Germany. Its really an entertaining article and the comments are worth reading as well


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