Many people, including cyclists, are confused about the legalities of riding a bike. Most ‘rules of the road’ are set out in the Highway Code which applies to all road users. What’s often not appreciated is that the Highway Code is a combination of both mandatory and therefore legal requirements and advisory rules. Not complying with advice isn’t a criminal offence, but can be used in evidence against you in court.
Here’s what the Highway Code stipulates as legal requirements:
Lights: Between sunset and sunrise you must have a white front and red rear light, lit, clean and working properly. This is actually 30 minutes before its dark and 30 minutes after its light. Lights that flash between 60 and 240 times per minute are now legally compliant. Unlike cars there’s no legal requirement to have lights on your bike during daytime or to have them lit in poor visibility, although we wouldn’t recommend cycling in dense fog without lighting up.
Reflectors: As with lights you should have a red rear reflector and four amber pedal reflectors if using your bike between sunset and sunrise. Reflective heel strips and ankle bands are actually more effective, but unfortunately aren’t legally compliant.
Brakes: Its an offence to ride a bike on a public road without two efficient and independently operated braking systems on the front and rear wheel. A fixed wheel bike with front brakes is also compliant.
Alcohol and drugs: Cycling on a road or ‘other public place’ (including a bridleway) whilst unfit through drink and drugs carries a fine of up to £1,000. You won’t get penalty points on your driving licence, but the courts have a general power to disqualify you from driving.
Careless, dangerous and furious cycling: If caught cycling without due care and attention or reasonable consideration for other road users you can be fined up to £1,000 if its considered by the Police to be ‘careless’ and up to £2,500 if ‘dangerous’. If you cause injury by cycling ‘furiously’ there’s a maximum prison sentence of up to two years.
Red lights and advance stop lines: The Police can issue a fixed penalty fine (typically £50) if a cyclist crosses the stop line when traffic lights are red. This also applies if you ride through an amber light unless you’re so close to the stop line that you might cause a collision. Cyclists can position themselves in front of motorists behind the advanced stop line as long as they don’t cross the stop line. On road crossings shared with pedestrians such as Toucans, the lights are only advisory. The same applies for ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs.
Pavement cycling: It’s an offence to drive a “carriage” on “any footpath or causeway by the side of any road made or set apart for the use or accommodation of foot passengers” As a bicycle is legally a ‘carriage’ its therefore illegal to cycle on a pavement. The law applies to children, but anyone under 10 can’t be prosecuted. However in 1999 and again in 2014 the responsible Ministers issued guidance that the Police should use their discretion in enforcing the law saying it was not aimed at “responsible cyclists who sometimes feel obliged to use the pavement out of fear of traffic and show consideration to other pavement users when doing so.”
There are also quite a few pavements and shared use paths around Worcester where the County Council has made it legal to cycle.
Other things that aren’t legal are carrying more than one person on a bike unless built or adapted to take more than one. Its also illegal to hold onto a moving or passing vehicle “without reasonable cause”.
The biggest confusion tends to be around the more advisory ‘should’ or ‘should not’ rules:
Single file or two abreast: Cycling two abreast is legal and although not recommended cycling even more than two abreast isn’t actually illegal. To further confuse matters Rule 66 ‘advises’ cyclists to “ride in single file on narrow or busy roads and when riding around bends”. That’s despite the Government’s own approved cycle training recommending cyclists should ride two abreast when there’s insufficient room for a vehicle to pass safely.
Hi-viz and helmets: Rule 59 advises cyclists to wear a helmet conforming to current regulations and to wear light coloured or fluorescent clothing “in daylight and poor light” and reflective clothing “in the dark”. With the exception of ankle straps there is however no evidence that any of this makes a cyclist safer and none of it is a legal requirement.
Now for the urban myths. The things some people believe cyclists must do or should do:
Riding outside a cycle lane: Using a cycle lane isn’t compulsory. Whether or not you use them or the road “depends on your experience and skills, but they can make your journey safer”. Indeed, there are many cycle lanes around Worcester that are either so badly designed, maintained or littered with metal barriers that they are no safer than the roads and certainly less convenient.
Riding in the middle of the lane: This is what’s called the ‘primary position’ in the Government approved ‘Bikeability‘ training. Its an urban myth that cyclists should always ride close to the left-hand verge and pull over to let motorists pass. For safety reasons cyclists are recommended to ride at least 0.5m to 1 m from the edge of the road and move to the middle of the lane when it’s not safe for a vehicle to pass them, when turning right and when passing junctions and parked cars. It is however recommended that cyclists should move to the left and single out, but only when its safe for them to do so.
Bells on bikes: There’s no legal requirement to have a bell on a bike. All that’s stipulated is that cyclists “should be considerate to other road users, particularly blind and partially sighted pedestrians”.
‘Road Tax’: Finally, cyclists have exactly the same rights to be on the road as any other highway users. Our roads are mainly paid for out of general taxation and most cyclists pay as much if not more than the average motorist and partly because the vast majority also drive. The big difference is they take far less road space, cause less wear and tear and are one of the most environmentally friendly and efficient forms of transport. Add into the mix that they’re typically healthier they are less of a burden on the NHS and social services and there’s even a case for getting a tax refund!