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Cycling: Bells

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 27 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of any hazards that arise when cyclists fail to make use of bicycle bells.

My Lords, cyclists, like all road users, have a responsibility to behave in a safe and responsible manner. Rule 66 of the Highway Code recommends that bells are fitted and used as necessary, and all new bikes must be sold with a bell fitted.

My Lords, what can be done about the huge number of cyclists without bells, which does not lack aggressive and foul-mouthed elements? Some of them seem to prefer pavements to their designated cycle lanes, having presumably discarded the bells which, as my noble friend has said, are required by law when bicycles are first sold. Is this not completely irresponsible?

My Lords, I am going to try very hard not to make this a pro- and anti-cycling Question, because there are many people on our roads—pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders, motorcyclists and drivers of motorised vehicles—and we must ensure that each considers their impact on other road users. My noble friend is right that we must do something. The core is education and training. In the Government’s cycling strategy, Gear Change: A Bold Vision for Cycling and Walking, we said that every adult and child who wants it can be trained on how to ride a bicycle safely.

My Lords, some time ago, I had a near-encounter with a cyclist. He did not have a bell and I did not see him coming, but an accident was avoided because he shouted “ding ding” as he approached me. Like many colleagues, I have done much more walking during the pandemic, and had many close encounters. While it is argued that cyclists should not rely unduly on bells as a means of avoiding hazards, in almost every case it is the only warning that the pedestrian has. Surely all cyclists should be required to have bells on their bicycles and should not be allowed on the road without them.

My Lords, the Government are not about to mandate bells on bicycles. That would be disproportionate, and it is unlikely that any enforcement would be a police priority. However, cyclists must take responsibility for their actions. A little “ding ding” on a bell on a bridleway is perfectly fine, but if you are travelling in central London, it will get you nowhere, and in those circumstances, a shout is probably preferable. I am afraid that the Government will not be mandating bells at the present time.

My Lords, I welcome the huge increase in cycling, but millions of people will never get on a bicycle, and millions of pedestrians on pavements feel intimated and threatened by that small minority of anti-social cyclists. Has the Minister given any thought to how we can identify those anti-social cyclists who head off very speedily? Could they all have something that shows who they are, so that they can be identified?

My Lords, the Government looked very closely at the issue of safety. In the cycling and walking safety review of 2018 we looked at licensing, but we concluded that the costs would outweigh the benefits of getting more people on to a bike. However, I am sure the noble Baroness is aware that it is an offence to cycle on the pavements, under Section 72 of the Highways Act 1835. Enforcement is an operational matter for local police forces.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a runner clocking up 20 miles a week. I can testify that cyclists can be a real danger to stand-up sportsmen, and very few of the MAMILs have bells. They claim that they interfere with the aerodynamics, which is really just vanity. Outside England, bells are required under the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic 1968, so why do we not have that requirement in England as well? Also, will my noble friend the Minister look at supporting a Bill to regulate pedicabs, which is going to fail in this Session?

I thank my noble friend for his questions and congratulate him on his running. The Government take an interest in how pedicabs will be regulated, and we will look favourably on any Bills that might come forward. I think I have answered the question about mandating cycle bells, but we have just closed a consultation on the Highway Code. We want to ensure that those who can cause the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce danger or threat. In those circumstances, a cyclist would have the responsibility to a pedestrian or a runner to ensure that they were safe and did not feel intimidated.

My Lords, arguably e-scooters pose an even greater threat than cycles. The Government’s policy seems to be to normalise these by stealth. About 300,000 have been sold for illegal private use, and on sites such as Amazon or eBay you can find them with a top speed of 50 mph, marketed as “great for commuting” despite it being illegal to ride them on public roads, let alone pavements. There is no enforcement whatever. They are almost silent, such that pedestrians, especially those with vision impairment, are hugely at risk. What are the Government doing to protect pedestrians, especially vulnerable ones, from e-scooters?

I refer the noble Baroness to the answers to the Question on e-scooters that I answered last week for more context on that. It is illegal to ride a privately owned e-scooter on a public road, and where there are e-scooter trials, all the e-scooters within those trials are fitted with a bell or a horn.

My Lords, I have been cycling a lot during the pandemic and have become very aware of problems both caused by and faced by cyclists, including not using their bells to alert others to their approach or finding that those others are so immersed in their headphones that they would fail to be alerted by the crack of doom. Might the Minister consider a campaign, perhaps in partnership with leading cycling bodies, to raise awareness of good cycling —and, indeed, scootering—behaviour as part of her welcome commitment to training and guidance?

I reassure the noble Lord that we not only support a campaign but are taking action on this. We will be investing £18 million in the current financial year on Bikeability training for both adults and children. The noble Lord might be interested to know that role 4 of the government-backed national standard cycling training curriculum, which replaced the cycling proficiency test—which I am sure noble Lords are familiar with—has an entire topic about riding

“safely and responsibly in the traffic system.”

It is not about the cyclists in isolation but about how they interact with all elements within the traffic system, whether that be pedestrians or those using motorised vehicles.

My Lords, first, I reiterate my thanks to my noble friend Lord Lexden for his very generous sponsorship of a charity bike ride that I did some five years ago round the Somme. Of course, cyclists should behave responsibly, legally and courteously but pedestrians very often do not hear nor react to bicycle bells, as indeed the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has just said, and motorists invariably do not. In a collision with a car or a pedestrian, a cyclist is likely to come off worse because he has further to fall. The problem is not with vulnerable cyclists but with motor vehicles and sometimes pedestrians who are not paying attention or taking sufficient care. Will my noble friend, as a start, encourage the police to take action against motorists who, for instance, block and occupy advance stop lines provided for cyclists at junctions?

I agree with my noble friend that perhaps a little more could be done around making sure that motorists do not stop in those boxes because they are really key for cyclists. It is about educating the drivers of motor vehicles as well. I reassure my noble friend that this goes back to the hierarchy of road users, about which we have consulted. We have got 21,000 responses on that. That has the capacity to fundamentally change the way we think about fellow road users, in whichever mode they choose to travel, and how we keep ourselves—and them—safe.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the biggest hazard for cyclists is actually unsafe drivers? They may be anti-social and some of the cyclists are anti-social, as other noble Lords have said. Does she agree that the common problem is the silent approach, be it by cyclists or electric cars? Surely the answer there is to make people use bells. Personally, I use a horn when I can because it is even better. It wakes up people who are probably on a mobile phone in their car.

I very much hope that they are not on their mobile phone in their car; otherwise, I shall have words. The noble Lord makes some incredibly important points. It is a question of making sure that the balance is right between the actions of the motorist and the actions of the cyclist. I think I have been able to set out what the Government are doing. We are focused on ensuring that the right balance is achieved and we need to make sure that motorists as well as cyclists behave in the way that they should.