Racing bell by marco monetti licensed under Creative Commons.

A version of this article was first published on the WashCycle.

Back in 2013, DC took the unusual step of allowing bikes to be ridden in the District without a bell, something the city had required for more than 125 years—and something a lot of other cities had required as well. Some advocates successfully argued that bicycle bells were an add-on that did nothing to improve safety, so they shouldn't be mandatory.

The District's regulation dated back to 1884 when the DC Police updated its regulations to include several rules about bicycles, notably that bicycles must have a bell or gong that is “sounded by the revolution of a wheel.” The idea was to set rules similar to those governing sleighs. Like bicycles, they moved quietly and often surprised pedestrians at night.

Somewhat surprisingly, it seems that bicyclists had themselves to blame for the regulation. The Capital Bicycle Club (CBC) wrote the District Commissioners in 1881 asking for rules requiring bells, as well as lights.

By 1887, the CBC had changed its tune. The CBC noted that it no longer required members to have bells (or lamps) because it found them to be ineffective, and asked the District to change the regulations for both. It argued that the rule, which was widely ignored, would create a public nuisance of constant ringing if actually followed.

They also said that the law was unclear as to whether or not the bells were needed in the daytime and when they needed to be rung. In one crash it highlighted, the operator of a wagon didn't stop when he saw a cyclist, hit the cyclist, and then said he didn't need to stop because the cyclist didn't ring their bell.

The CBC added that the “alarm of a bell is construed as an unauthorized order to clear the road” and has the effect of startling pedestrians, which might make a collision more likely instead of less.1 To protest the law, one cyclist spent a day riding loops around the District Building clanging cowbells attached to his bike.2

By the end of the summer, the CBC's advocacy had had some success. The regulations were updated to allow cyclists to decide when to ring the bell or gong. The requirement for lamps at night remained, but cyclists were given more leeway in choosing which design of light to use (not just the “bulls-eye” lamp).3

In 1888, local cyclists—this time the DC division of the League of American Wheelmen—again asked that the rules requiring lights and bells be removed. They argued that horsemen and private vehicle owners were not required to have them, and that it is better for cyclists to avoid pedestrians than to tell them to move out of the way.4 They tried again in 1892, arguing that the lights were useless and expensive, and that the bells made cyclists careless.5

In the years in between, various people complained that the law was under-enforced or over-enforced, but by and large, cyclists haven't continued to advocate for removing it. Since the law allowing bicyclists to ride without bells passed in 2013, there hasn't been much complaining—but this being DC, there has been some.

  1. “Bicycles After Dark” The Evening Star, 6 July 1887
  2. “He Carried a Cowbell” The Evening Star, 28 July 1887
  3. “Revised Police Regulations” The Evening Star, 14 July 1887
  4. “Bicycle Bells and Lights” The Washington Post, 2 August 1888
  5. “Bicycle Bells and Lights” The Washington Post, 12 July 1892