What’s legal – and what’s not – on your bike?
What’s legal – and what’s not – on your bike?
The single file and alternative facts
Road.cc recently reported the story of two cyclists pulled over by a police officer in Essex for cycling two abreast.
Rather embarrassingly for the officer, not only was his knowledge of the Highway Code (HC) somewhat lacking, but the whole episode was captured on camera, including the moment when the officer decided that the words “should not ride more than two abreast” mean ‘must ride single file’, insisting that by doing otherwise the ‘Essex Two’ were “causing other road users to drive carelessly”.
Who needs to know the law when you have alternative facts?
Sadly, the Essex single file rule is merely the latest example of the confusion among some motorists, cyclists, police officers and others regarding cycling and the law.
One Cycling UK member, Steve Abraham, was stopped for the imaginary offence of cycling on an A road, while London cyclist Evo Lucas was asked to explain to police why he was “cycling in the middle of the road, making it difficult for vehicles to pass”, when cycling in primary position past parked cars along a 20mph road.
With this in mind, it’s perhaps timely to look at what’s legal on a bike and what’s not, including some of the common misconceptions.
Many people misunderstand the Highway Code, which is not of itself a statement of the law, but a combination of both advice and mandatory rules which apply to all road users in Great Britain, although there is a different version for Northern Ireland.
Where a HC rule is expressed as something you ‘must’ or ‘must not’ do, the rule reflects a legal requirement imposed by legislation, breach of which is a criminal offence.
Where a HC rule is expressed in advisory terms, using words such as ‘should/should not’, or ‘do/do not’, the rule doesn’t reflect a legal requirement. A failure to comply with such a rule can however be used as evidence in both criminal and civil proceedings.
For example, a driver’s failure to comply with advisory overtaking rule 163 when overtaking a cyclist too close is relevant to whether they have or have not committed a careless driving offence. Similarly, in civil compensation claims, non-adherence to HC rules is often raised when liability (who is to blame, and who should pay) is determined.
So, ignoring for a moment HC advisory should and should not rules, what are the absolute must-do legal requirements?
- You must have approved front and rear lights, lit, clean and working properly, when cycling between sunset and sunrise. It’s no defence to say that it was past sunset but not yet dark, the legal lighting obligations for cyclists are determined by sunset and sunrise times, not ‘hours of darkness’, which start 30 minutes after the former, end 30 minutes before the latter, and dictate when motorists must switch from sidelights to headlights.
- Cycling UK’s guide to cycle lighting regulations explains the Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations in detail, but in summary you need a white light at the front and a red light at the rear, visible from the front and rear respectively and fixed to your bike. A light obscured by a saddlebag isn’t legal and neither is a torch on your head, though there’s nothing to stop you using a head-torch as an optional or additional light.
- The regulations also now allow flashing lights, provided they flash between 60 and 240 times per minute.
- Optional or additional lights do not need to comply with the minimum lighting requirements. But you can’t have a red light at the front of your bike or a white light at the rear, so red white and blue flashing lights, as suggested to us a couple of weeks ago, are not an option.
- Unlike with other vehicles, lights are not a legal requirement for cyclists during the daytime when there is seriously reduced visibility, although we wouldn’t recommend cycling through dense fog without lighting up.
- As with lights, the legal requirements for reflectors only apply between sunset and sunrise, and include a red rear reflector and four amber pedal reflectors, one at the front and rear of each pedal. Common sense might suggest that replacing an amber pedal reflector with a reflective heel strip or ankle band might suffice. However, neither meets the legal requirements which pertain strictly to pedals – an annoying problem for those who use certain makes of clipless pedals not designed with reflectors in mind, and an area of legislation in need of review.
- It’s an offence to ride a bicycle on a public road without two efficient braking systems, operating independently on the front and rear wheel. Apart from saying that a brake which operates directly on a pneumatic tyre is not efficient, the regulations are unhelpful as to what is or is not efficient, nor do they define how the brakes must operate.
- It is clear that a fixed wheel counts as a braking system operating on that wheel, so a fixed wheel bike with a front brake is legal (assuming both brakes are efficient!), but a fixed wheel bike with merely a rear brake isn’t, as there’s no independent front wheel brake.
- There are various exceptions for tricycles, quadricycles, non-standard cycles and electric assist pedal cycles as summarised in this Cycling UK construction and use article.
- It’s worth remembering that the legislation and regulations in Northern Ireland are slightly different, so for example, it is a legal requirement to have a bell on your bike in Northern Ireland and in the Isle of Man, but not elsewhere in the UK.
Cyclists must not
Moving on to the legal prohibitions, what are things cyclists must not do?
Alcohol and drugs
- Cycling on a road or other public place (including a bridleway) while unfit through drink or drugs carries a fine up to £1,000. There's no breath test for this and no blood alcohol or other legal limits. The key question is simply whether you are under the influence to the extent that you’re incapable of having proper control of your bike.
- While it is true that you can’t have your driving licence endorsed with penalty points because of an offence committed on a bicycle, it’s often overlooked that the court does have a general power under the Power of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 to disqualify anyone from driving, without imposing penalty points, for any offence, including a cycling offence.
Careless, dangerous and furious cycling – you must not:
- Cycle carelessly, meaning without due care and attention or reasonable consideration for other road users (£1,000 max fine) or dangerously (£2,500 max fine). The test for these offences replicates that for careless and dangerous driving, so careless is a standard below that of a competent and careful cyclist, and dangerous is far below that standard and it must also be obviously dangerous to a competent and careful cyclist. It’s the ‘reasonable consideration for other road users’ point which occasionally causes difficulty, with some police officers interpreting this incorrectly as a requirement for cyclists to move over to allow cars to overtake, forgetting that cyclists often assume primary position to discourage unsafe overtaking.
- Cause injury by cycling furiously (two year max imprisonment). This goes back to legislation from 1861 which applies to drivers of vehicles or carriages who cause bodily harm to anyone by wanton or furious driving. Cycles are legally carriages, so this is the offence which hits the headlines every couple of years following serious injury or fatal collisions between cyclists and pedestrians (though note that 98.5% of pedestrian fatalities and 96% of pedestrian serious injuries on a pavement or verge involve a motor vehicle not a cycle; see Cycling UK briefing).
- Cycle furiously (no injury caused). You can’t be prosecuted for speeding while cycling as speeding offences are specific to motor vehicles, although there are exceptions where local byelaws apply such as the Royal Parks. Under the 1847 Town and Police Clauses Act you can, however, be fined up to £1,000 for cycling furiously, hence cycling too fast for the conditions can potentially lead to either a furious cycling or careless cycling charge.
Red lights and advanced stop lines
- Crossing the stop line when the traffic lights are red (jumping red lights) is an offence which the police usually deal with via a fixed penalty notice (FPN) fine (typically £50), as is riding across a cycle-only signal crossing if the green cycle symbol isn’t showing.
- Where there is an advanced stop line (ASL) cyclists can position themselves ahead of the motorised traffic but behind the ASL, though crossing the ASL on red is still an offence.
- It’s also an offence to ride through an amber light, unless you are so close to the stop line that to stop might cause a collision, although if the traffic lights aren’t working all road users are permitted to treat the situation as they would an unmarked junction, and “proceed with great care”.
- There is, however, a difference between vehicular-control traffic lights and light-controlled crossings shared by pedestrians and cyclists such as Toucans, where the lights are there to advise when it’s safe to cross but aren’t a legal command not to cross.
- Firstly, the legislation doesn’t refer to pavements, and neither does it refer to cyclists. That’s important because there are tracks and shared use paths where cycling is not illegal.
- 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”, essentially a footway next to the highway; different but equivalent legislation applies in Scotland.
- The law also applies to children, but as those under 10 are below the age of criminal responsibility they can’t be prosecuted; watch out in Scotland, though, where criminal responsibility starts at eight, although the Scottish Government has announced plans to increase this to 12. Being too young to prosecute unfortunately didn’t stop a police officer in Lincolnshire threatening to confiscate a four-year-old’s bike after he spotted her cycling on the pavement in 2015.
- When FPNs were introduced for pavement cycling in 1999, Home Office Minister Paul Boateng issued guidance saying that: “The introduction of the fixed penalty is not aimed at responsible cyclists who sometimes feel obliged to use the pavement out of fear of traffic and who show consideration to other pavement users when doing so. Chief police officers who are responsible for enforcement, acknowledge that many cyclists, particularly children and young people, are afraid to cycle on the road, sensitivity and careful use of police discretion is required.”
- The Home Office guidance was re-affirmed in 2014 by the then Cycling Minister Robert Goodwill, who agreed that the police should use discretion in enforcing the law and recommended that the matter be taken up with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). ACPO welcomed the renewed guidance, circulated it to all forces, and issued a statement referring to “discretion in taking a reasonable and proportionate approach, with safety being a guiding principle”.
- To summarise, cycling on the pavement is still an offence, but there is clear guidance that the police are supposed to exercise discretion.
- And finally on pavements, remember that on segregated cycle tracks the pedestrian side remains a footway, so if you cycle into the pedestrian side to pass a pedestrian in the cycle lane you technically commit a pavement cycling offence. There’s an anomaly because cyclists have to ride on their side, but pedestrians are only advised to use theirs.
Miscellaneous ‘must nots’
- As Boris Johnson discovered, giving your wife a backie on your bicycle is a criminal offence as it’s illegal to carry more than one person on a bicycle unless “it is constructed or adapted for the carriage of more than one person”. Interestingly, the legislation doesn’t refer to cycling, it just limits the number of people allowed on an unadapted bicycle (bicycle isn’t defined, but presumably means two wheels, so what about tricycles?).
- Holding onto a moving motor vehicle or trailer while cycling, although there is a " without reasonable cause" proviso which you would hope would allow a defence to anyone desperately grabbing hold of the side of a vehicle to avoid being knocked off.
Shoulds and should nots
The first thing to say is that the Highway Code is long overdue for a complete review. It’s usually reviewed every six or seven years but, while there have been some amendments in recent years, nine years have passed since the last full revision. The confusion around some of the following ‘should’ and ‘should not’ rules demonstrates why that’s too long.
Single file or two abreast
- Firstly, let’s be clear: there is no law which prevents you from riding two, or even three or more, abreast, just advisory rule 66 of the HC.
- Rule 66 is not well drafted, because it starts with the words “You should”, and later says “never ride more than two abreast”. ‘Should’ is advisory, but ‘never’ sounds like it’s directory, leading some drivers and police officers to assume that riding more than two abreast is illegal when it isn’t. Doing so is contrary to the HC and can be presented as evidence in a prosecution for cycling without reasonable consideration for other road users, but the entire context would be relevant (was it a minor road, was there a lack of consideration for another road user or was the road empty?).
- Of itself, however, cycling more than two abreast, though not recommended, is not illegal.
- Rule 66 further advises that cyclists should “ride in single file on narrow or busy roads and when riding round bends”; however, the interpretation of this rule undoubtedly causes problems. Cyclists often ride two abreast for safety reasons, whereas some drivers (and at least one Essex police officer), believe cyclists should single out to avoid delaying motorists, forgetting that motorised users don’t have enhanced rights to the road over cyclists.
- Cycling UK agrees that there are times when cyclists should single out, but it’s safety that should be the over-riding factor when making that decision and considering the rule 66 advice, not whether the driver behind might have to wait a few seconds before overtaking.
Hi-vis and helmets
- Rule 59 of the HC advises that cyclists should wear a cycle helmet which conforms to current regulations, is the correct size and securely fastened.
- Cycling UK’s views on helmets are set out in detail within our briefing document, but very briefly we believe that whether or not to wear a helmet is a matter of personal choice. Attempts to either force or pressure cyclists to wear helmets elsewhere have led to reductions in cycle use, which is detrimental to public health given the substantial health benefits of cycling.
- Rule 59 also advises cyclists to wear light coloured or fluorescent clothing “which helps other people to see you” in daylight and poor light, and “reflective clothing and/or accessories (belt, arm or ankle bands) in the dark”.
- The merits of reflective clothing and hi-vis are dealt with in our 10 common questions about cycling briefing, but in essence the research suggests that retroreflective accessories designed to make you more conspicuous in the dark, especially ankle straps that move when you pedal, are beneficial. Conversely there is very little evidence to suggest that hi-vis (as opposed to reflective strips and items) makes a significant impact on cyclists’ safety. The research suggests that it may help drivers to spot pedestrians and cyclists more readily, but there was no evidence by how much and it was impossible to say whether that made them safer, as spotting them was one thing and driving safely around them another.
- Unfortunately, whether or not the cyclist was wearing a helmet and hi-vis appears to be a priority within many press reports following collisions involving cyclists, a factor which can influence whether or not the police decide to prosecute a driver, and an issue raised in evidence in court proceedings to determine either cause of death, civil liability or criminal responsibility.
- Accordingly, whatever Cycling UK’s views may be regarding helmets and clothing being personal choices, and whatever the safety merits of either may be, the reality is that the rule 59 advice is often sadly used to deflect blame to the cyclist and, in relation to clothing, to attempt to explain why a driver either failed to see or failed to avoid hitting a cyclist. Strangely, it does not seem to apply in reverse, so if you hit a black car you can’t blame the owner or manufacturer for their paint colour choice. It’s apparently just cyclists in dark clothes who can’t be seen.
What you don’t have to do
Now for the urban myths, the things some people believe cyclists must do, or if they don’t do they should do.
Riding outside the cycle lane
- Use of cycle lanes is not compulsory, largely due to Cycling UK’s campaign in response to a proposed HC revision in 2007. What’s more, the common belief that cyclists are advised to use cycle lanes is also slightly overstated. Rule 63 of the HC describes cycle lanes, but does not say that cyclists should use them, merely that use of them “depends on your experience and skills, but they can make your journey safer”.
- Most cyclists will choose to use good-quality cycle lanes where they exist, but where they are badly designed, littered with glass or badly maintained, they won’t. You are entitled to make you own choice, and the HC rule reflects that.
Riding in the middle of the lane
- I have referred to the middle of the lane rather than the primary position, because the latter phrase means nothing to most motorists. Whatever you call it, this means ‘taking the lane’, so you are cycling effectively in the middle of the lane, with the general flow of traffic rather than to the left of the traffic.
- Riding in this position can in some circumstances be your safest option. If there are parked cars on your left it gives you sufficient space to avoid any car doors unexpectedly opened in front of you. It can discourage or prevent drivers from overtaking where there is insufficient space or it would be unsafe to do so, and it can be where you can most easily see and be seen.
- You don’t always have to ride in this position, and depending on the road and traffic conditions, you may choose to move further to the left of the lane into what is known as the secondary position. That does not, however, mean hugging the kerb, which you are neither obliged or advised to do in any circumstances.
- Some motorists labour under the urban myth, shared by the Metropolitan police officer who stopped Evo Lucas, that cyclists have to keep to the left to allow vehicles to pass. Rule 169 of the HC, which applies to all road users, does advise that you should not “hold up a long queue of traffic”, before referring specifically to large or slow moving vehicles with further advice to “if necessary, pull in where it is safe and let traffic pass”.
- Rule 169 does not mean that cyclists should immediately pull over to let traffic past, but it could be interpreted by some police officers to suggest that a cyclist riding in the middle of the lane (or cyclists riding two abreast) should at some point look to move to the left or single out if there is a significant queue building up behind them, though a key question would still be whether there was an opportunity to do so safely.
Just for completeness, I should say that this is not a complete list of every legal requirement and HC rule that applies to cyclists, merely a review of some of the most common issues and questions. Further information can be found in many of Cycling UK’s briefing documents, which are filtered into particular campaign themes.
Cycling UK’s Cyclists’ Defence Fund (CDF) also works to raise awareness of the law relating to cycling and provides information about the legal aspects of cycling in the UK. CDF can’t assist with every legal case concerning cycling or cyclists, but if you have a particular legal issue you can contact CDF who might be able to help.