According to the Road Traffic Acts, it is illegal to ride a pedal cycle, including an electrically-assisted pedal cycle, on a public road in Great Britain, unless it meets the requirements of Statutory Instrument (1983 No. 1176 ). It can also be an offence to sell a pedal cycle that fails to meet these requirements – unless it's sold for racing off-road or on enclosed tracks.
But don't worry, these requirements are much simpler than those of the Pedal Bicycle Safety Regulations , which have apply to the sales of all new bikes since 1983. So any new-ish bike is bound to be legal to use – assuming it's been kept in good condition and not modified too much.
More exacting requirements apply to the construction and use of bicycles and tricycles with electrical assistance. For details of those requirements, see EAPCs below.
This regulation has a general exemption for pedal cycles (but not EAPCs) brought into Britain by a foreign visitor for their own temporary use. Nothing in these regulations applies to such a 'temporarily imported' cycle, provided that it has one effective brake as required by the International Convention on Road Traffic . The equivalent of the Road Traffic Acts in most other countries have a similar exemption.
It should be noted that this legislation applies only in Britain, meaning England, Wales and Scotland. Other parts of UK have their own subtly different versions of the Road Traffic Acts and are for this purpose: abroad. (See Bells below.)
In the case of a pure pedal cycle (no electrical assistance) these regulations are so simple, that the only parts that matter are the brakes.
The basic requirement is for two efficient braking systems, by which the front wheel (or wheels) can be braked independently of the rear wheel (or wheels). This means that if there are two wheels at the front and/or the rear, the relevant system must act on the pair. It also means that the combined operation of front and rear brakes from one lever is not allowed - except as an extra braking system: additional to the two independent front and rear braking systems required by this law.
Each braking system is required to be in efficient working order, but apart from saying that a brake that bears directly upon a pneumatic tyre in not efficient, these regulations do not define how the brakes work or how they are operated. So back-pedal brakes are just as legal as the usual hand-levers. (You could even brake with your teeth if you could invent a way to do it efficiently!)
A lot of words are nevertheless devoted to wheels that cannot rotate independently of the pedals (i.e. no freewheel), the upshot of which is very simply that a fixed wheel drive counts as a braking system – on that wheel or wheels.
Tricycles and quadricycles are allowed many and various deviations from the above requirements, depending on age, purpose and wheel size.
The most important exception applies to any normal tricycle, with at least one wheel bigger than 460mm diameter and 'not constructed or adapted for the carriage of goods'. (By goods they mean unusual heavy loads, not ordinary shopping or touring luggage.) A normal tricycle, with two rear wheels, is allowed to have both braking systems acting upon the single front wheel, or if the tricycle has two front wheels: on the single rear wheel.
And a normal tricycle manufactured before 1st August 1984, with two rear wheels, is allowed to have its rear braking system acting upon just one of those wheels.
If the highest part of the 'seating area' of a bicycle or tricycle cannot be raised above 635mm from the road surface, the minimum requirement falls to just one efficient braking system. This is clearly intended for (very) small children's cycles, but inadvertently lets most recumbents under the bar!
A pedal cycle with four or more wheels, none of which exceed 250mm diameter (i.e. a tiny-wheeled quadricycle+) is allowed to have brakes that operate directly on its pneumatic tyres without them being deemed inefficient.
I've already noted that fixed wheel counts as a brake. Taking that a stage further: if one wheel is not only incapable of rotating independently of the pedals, but the pedals are fixed directly to it without any intervening chain or gears, the cycle does not have to be equipped with any actual brakes at all. This is obviously designed to allow various antique machines to be exercised on the highway without adding incongruous modern accessories!
Electrically assisted cycles are not allowed any exceptions to the independent front and rear braking rule, and a fixed wheel does not count on these cycles. Their brakes moreover, are required to perform to the level specified by British Standards.
It is also illegal to use an EAPC on the road unless certain other systems are in efficient working order.
- The pedals must be capable of propelling it.
- The battery mustn't leak so as to be a source of danger.
- The power switch or control must default to off, requiring a constant intervention from the rider in order to maintain power assistance.
- The motor power output and the road speed at which it cuts out must not exceed the limits set out in the EAPC Regulations .
The EAPC must also be fitted with a plate (where you can easily read it) showing the manufacturer's name, the battery voltage and motor power output.
It is interesting to note that whereas these regulations cater for pedal cycles with any number of wheels from two (bicycle) to four (quadricycle) – or even more – electrical assistance is not permitted with more than three (tricycle). This means that load-carrying quadricycles, increasingly used for deliveries into areas from which motor vehicles are excluded, cannot receive a little necessary electrical assistance without themselves becoming classified as motor vehicles.
Any constable in uniform is empowered to stop a cyclist and test the cycle for compliance with these regulations, and to enter the premises where a cycle is kept if it has been involved in an accident up to 48 hours previously.
Bells and reflectors
Note that there is no requirement in these regulations for a cycle to be equipped with a bell at the point of use. And if there were, this is where you'd find it. So the bell and all those reflectors required by the Pedal Bicycle Safety Regulations  may be discarded just as soon as you get the bicycle out of the shop! But remember that the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations  are also part of the Road Traffic Acts, and that they apply from the moment the sun dips below the horizon.
The bell could also be useful, for instance on bikepaths with blind corners. And should you live in another part of the UK, or wish to visit there, or any other country with your bike , a bell may well be required by law. So it's just as well to leave at least some of this arguably extraneous equipment attached.