In Japan, it is illegal to use a bike bell while cycling to make people in front of your get out of your way (see Article 54-2 of the Japan Road Traffic Act). Got an oblivious kid taking up the whole cycleway lane? Sorry, you’ll just have to wait or call out to them verbally. Same goes for winter cyclists in Hokkaido. If you’re cycling along that one-person-wide corridor of snow-bound footpath, you can’t use your bike bell to let people know you want them to get out of your way.
That said, people do ride bikes in Hokkaido even in winter, and so many cyclists will hang a hiking/bear bell off the bike somewhere in order to let pedestrians know they’re coming – sidewalks and cycleways can get pretty narrow with snow on both sides.
But is this legal?
We got a comment regarding this on our Facebook page (on this post), and we wanted to dig a little deeper. Let’s start with the Hokkaido Cycling Bylaw (北海道自転車条例), enacted in April 2018. This bylaw states in Article 5-4 that in winter, cyclists should strive to install ‘appropriate equipment’ suitable for cycling in winter in Hokkaido, or strive not to cycle. The wording in Japanese is below.
At the Hokkaido Wilds, we have bikes with wide tires and studs, so we are well-equipped in that regard. But what about bells? We also use them on our bikes to alert people that we’re coming. This is not to get them to move out of the way; we’ll happily get off our bikes if necessary and walk around people. It’s just that we don’t want to scare people as we cycle past them on the cycleways – people just don’t expect bikes to be out on the roads or cyclepaths.
So, we called around to get an official word on hiking bells and/or bear bells, as opposed to a fixed bike bell. We called Arimori-san from Southern Wind Cycle Shop (he’s also an administrative scrivener, so has a keen interest in cycle law), the Citizen’s Bureau at the Hokkaido Prefectural Government, and finally the Hokkaido Police.
Arimori-san from Southern Wind Cycle Store, who also does winter fatbike tours in Sapporo, said that for better or for worse, when it comes to cycle law, Japan seems to love vague and ambiguous language. He pointed out that the official Road Traffic Act prohibits the use of a bicycle bell apart from emergencies. “It’s true that you’re not allowed to use a bike bell to try to tell people to get out of your way,” he confirmed. But, he pointed out that the Road Traffic Act does allow non-emergency use of a bike bell if it is to prevent a hazard (Article 54-2, note that bicycles are classed as vehicles).
The driver of a vehicle or streetcar must not sound the horn unless required to do so pursuant to laws and regulations; provided, however, that this does not apply if sounding the horn is necessary in order to prevent a hazard.
So, in Arimori-san’s view, there is no clear law regarding whether or not having a hiking bell hanging form your bike would constitute a violation of the law. Sure, a hiking bell hanging from your handlebars will more or less always be dinging when cycling on the rough winter surfaces, but by alerting pedestrians to your presence, is this not also ‘preventing hazards’?
Hokkaido Prefectural Office View
We called the Hokkaido Prefectural Office Citizen’s Bureau, and they said that they can’t see how a hiking bell, hanging from one’s handlebars, could be construed as illegal. “Just make sure it doesn’t hang so low as to get caught and cause an accident,” the representative kindly advised.
Hokkaido Police’s view
The representative we spoke to at the Hokkaido Police first understood our query as one about whether we could hang stuff off our bikes. He first inquired about how big the bell was, and after telling him it was about 6cm tall, he said in a cut-and-dry manner, “so long as it doesn’t protrude more than 30cm off the bike, then there’s nothing illegal about it.” After clarifying that we were concerned about Article 54 of the Road Traffic Law, things became much less clear. After some consternation, he pointed me in the direction of the Hokkaido Bicycle Bylaw, and recommended that cyclists “make wise decisions regarding the conditions, and whether it is suitable to ride.”
To sum up, the law in Hokkaido is quite vague about whether bells on handlebars – at the very least while used in winter – are the realm of illegality or legality. We’re pretty sure winter cyclists have nothing to be concerned about though. Keep safe, keep others safe, and enjoy the winter riding.