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Are you breaking the law when you ride your bike?

Cyclist chased by policeman
James Witts
18 Oct 2020

You couldn’t hope to find a more upstanding citizen than a cyclist. But could you be breaking the law without knowing? We investigate

Anyone can ride a bike. You don’t need to pass a test or register yourself as a bike owner, and bikes don’t come with a manual outlining correct riding procedure. This beautiful simplicity is part of what makes cycling so popular around the world, but of course as soon as you take to public roads you are bound by certain rules.

Most of us like to believe that we understand and abide by those rules, but do we really know the facts?

Are those lights on your bike legal? Are you really entitled to ride two abreast? Is that kid riding with the headphones breaking the law?

At best, our hazy understanding of the rules governing road cycling can lead to arguments with other road users. At worst, it can contribute to serious injuries or even death.

Cyclist decided it was time to separate the truth from the myths.

Shining example

Let’s start with lights. There is plenty of debate about whether lights are compulsory, how bright they should be and whether they can flash or not. On the surface, the law is clear: if you’re riding on public roads in the dark, you’re obliged to have lights.

But even top-end lights costing hundreds of pounds might not comply with the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulation (RVLR).

According to this regulation, a front light should have 110˚ visibility, which immediately rules out many high-powered lights with shielded or recessed lenses. Both front and rear flashing lights are perfectly legal provided they flash between 60 and 240 times a minute and are still capable of emitting a steady light.

The people who penned the RVLR also require your bike to have rear and pedal reflectors, which is why your £5,000 carbon race bike came complete with a cheap set of budget plastic pedals. Manufacturers know you’ll swap them for clipless pedals but it’s the law.

‘Nobody’s going to stop you for not having a reflector on your pedal at night,’ says Martin Porter QC, a lawyer who specialises in cycling cases and is also chairman of the Thames Velo cycling club.

‘But my response is to wear a reflective band around my ankle, which technically doesn’t quite suit the law but it helps. Theoretically, you’re also breaking the law if your light is mounted to the right of your handlebar. It can be a strange world.’

Strange indeed. Cyclist contacted Duncan Dollimore, road safety and legal campaigns officer at Cycling UK (formerly the CTC), to give us a run-down of some of the other rules and regulations that can catch out riders who haven’t done their Cycling Proficiency Test.

‘Firstly, the Cycling Proficiency Test doesn’t exist in the same format as it used to,’ he says. ‘It’s been replaced by Bikeability, which involves three levels of training to improve your cycling.

'That said, you don’t have to have passed any level of Bikeability training to cycle on any roads.

‘You’re not required to be insured unless you’re on an electric bike that’s assisted with over 250 watts, and there are rules regarding brakes, which must be “efficient”.’ Better keep your brake-less track bike on the track, then.

What about listening to music on headphones while you ride? Porter puts it in simple terms: ‘You’re not banned from listening to a radio in the car so why would you be on a bike?’

From a safety point of view, however, it’s probably best that the music isn’t so loud that it blocks out other noises, such as approaching lorries. 

What about riding two abreast on the club run while traffic builds up behind you? Dollimore refers us to Rule 66 of the Highway Code: ‘Cyclists should never ride more than two abreast, and ride in single file on narrow or busy roads and when riding around bends.’ 

Even then, the Highway Code is not strictly law. But be warned: when the Highway Code uses advisory wording such as ‘should’ or ‘should not’, failure to comply could be used in evidence in any court proceedings to establish liability.

Share the road

It’s a common sight. An irate driver squeezes past a cyclist, winds down the window and yells, ‘You lot shouldn’t be allowed on the road!’ The response (expletives aside) is invariably that cyclists have as much right to be on the road as cars do, but is this the case on all roads?

‘There are only two types of roads not open to cyclists: motorways and something called “special roads”,’ says Porter. ‘Few people have heard of the latter since they are so uncommon. But such roads will be signposted to make it clear that cycling isn’t allowed.’

Another common complaint is that cyclists are legally obliged to use cycle paths rather than roads whenever a cycle path is available. ‘No,’ is the short answer from Porter.

‘There was a recommendation in the former versions of the Highway Code that cyclists should generally use cycle facilities, which included cycle paths.

'But there was a lot of lobbying by people who correctly pointed out that most cycle paths in this country aren’t as direct, convenient or even as safe as being on the main carriageway.’

Another couple of interesting points are that cyclists cannot officially break speed limits – ‘these only apply to motor vehicles’, says Porter – and that the drink driving laws do not apply to cyclists.

Even if you’re swerving all over the place and are stopped by the police, you’re not legally obliged to have a breath test.

‘Mind you, if you’re so drunk that you can’t control your bike, you could be charged with cycling without due care,’ says Porter. ‘Alcohol might be relevant to that but you wouldn’t need specific evidence showing blood alcohol levels.’

Whose fault is it, anyway?

‘Louts in Lycra MUST be made to have licence plates,’ read the Daily Mail headline. ‘After nearly being mown down by a cyclist, an incandescent Simon Heffer has a demand.’

The Mail has a reputation for being firmly anti-cycling, but there are plenty of people across the board who believe cyclists are guilty of not respecting the laws of the land, and that injured cyclists only have themselves to blame.

Chris Boardman, unsurprisingly, isn’t one of them.

British Cycling’s policy advisor would like the UK to adopt a model in line with the Netherlands, which has a system known as ‘strict liability’: in crashes involving vulnerable road users – cyclists and walkers – unless it can be proven that the vulnerable road user was at fault, the more powerful road user is found liable by default.

This makes Dutch drivers more cautious around cyclists, and cyclists more cautious around pedestrians. 

The Dutch law was introduced in the 1970s after a boom in the number of cars resulted in a huge increase in the number of car-related road deaths, especially involving children.

Mass protests followed, as well as a campaign called Stop de Kindermoord (‘Stop the Child Murder’). It coincided with the 1973 oil crisis, which put pressure on many of the country’s services. 

‘It all combined to create a sea change in official policy, with the government investing the equivalent of £25 per head in the country’s cycle infrastructure,’ says Boardman.

‘That compares to this government, which is investing £300 million over five years outside of London – or just £1.40 per head.’

Because the UK doesn’t employ strict liability laws, many cyclists contest that motorists can kill with impunity. Take the case of Rhyl Cycling Club, four of whose members were struck down by Robert Harris on the A457 in January 2006.

Harris skidded on black ice at 50mph, causing what was described as ‘carnage’. And the sentence? Harris was fined £180 for bald tyres and given six penalty points.

According to government statistics, 3,401 cyclists were seriously injured on UK roads in 2014. That’s an increase of 8.2% year on year, and a massive 56% spike since 2004, easily outpacing the rise in the number of cyclists on the roads overall.

So should cyclists be obliged by law to wear a helmet? 

That isn’t the case at present, and the UK is far from alone in that respect – in fact, attitudes towards helmet use vary greatly around the world. In 1989, Australia became the first country to enforce mandatory helmet use, followed by Argentina and Togo.

Austria and Croatia legally insist that youths wear them, while in Chile helmet use is mandatory in urban zones and ‘suggested’ in rural areas.

There is plenty of vocal support in the UK for making helmet use mandatory, all too often fuelled by tragedy. In 2013, Lincolnshire teenager Ryan Smith was left in a coma and suffered permanent brain injuries after being knocked off his bike by a van.

He had refused to wear a helmet for fear of messing up his quiff. His dad, Mark, pleaded at the time, ‘Don’t let this happen to your kids. Get your kids helmets.’ 

Former Olympic rower James Cracknell remains ‘indebted’ to wearing a helmet, which he says saved his life when a fuel truck struck him from behind during his 2010 challenge to cycle, row, run and swim from LA to New York.

The accident left Cracknell with epilepsy.

Hard-headed logic

Despite the logic that helmets protect your head, there’s no empirical evidence to prove that wearing them makes you safer.

Boardman returns to his Dutch example, where only 0.3% of cyclists there wear helmets, yet the country has the lowest head injury rate in the world.

Researchers from the University of Toronto and the University of Columbia also found that mandatory helmet-wearing had little effect on the number of cycling injuries after they compared different districts in Canada between 2006 and 2011.

Making helmets compulsory would inevitably slow down the uptake of cycling, and would render cycle-hire schemes much less accessible, so it’s likely that the UK will not be changing the helmet laws any time soon.

But if some cycling laws could be changed, what would our legal expert like to see?

Porter draws on his recent experience representing himself after he was involved in a ‘non-collision but dangerous driving’ episode that saw a driver nearly clip him while driving well over the speed limit.

‘I’d like to see the right to jury trial removed in dangerous cases where there’s been no injury or death,’ he says.

‘Since only 2% of the population regularly cycles, there’s a potential lack of empathy in these cases.

‘I’d also like to see the requirement for a notice of intended prosecution, which currently sits at 14 days, removed or extended dramatically.

'Part of the problem with my alleged dangerous driver is that the Metropolitan Police didn’t serve a notice of intended prosecution, without which they aren’t able to prosecute at all, so they have a whole system that’s based around not taking action.

'Which is sad, really, as cycling is such a wonderful and life-affirming activity.’

Off on holiday? 

Have bike, will travel? Here are some of the weird and wonderful cycling laws you may encounter on your adventures.

Germany: Don’t drink and ride 

Unlike the UK, being caught cycling in Germany with litres of Bitburger coursing through your veins could have serious implications. If your blood alcohol level registers 1.6% or more, German authorities are entitled to confiscate your driving licence – even if you are nowhere near a car.

Australia: Stay seated

Matthew Hayman would have struggled to outsprint Tom Boonen in Paris-Roubaix if he’d followed the letter of the law in his home country.

The little-known Australian Rule 245 requires cyclists to be seated at all times. Proposed amendments were put into the public domain last August, so hopefully this one will soon be a thing of the past.

Saudi Arabia: Men only

Given the country’s attitudes towards gender equality in general, it’s probably no surprise to discover that in Saudi Arabia women aren’t legally allowed to ride bikes or operate vehicles on the road.

A woman can only legally cycle in a park, wearing a burka, with a male chaperone.

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