Cyclists and the law
This briefing looks at current legislation. We are preparing a companion briefing on calls to regulate cyclists additionally through licensing, insurance and tax (link will appear here shortly).
Cycling UK believes that people who use cycles should, like all road users, behave responsibly and within the law.
At the same time, we believe that it's vital to acknowledge that cyclists are vulnerable road users and disproportionately represented in road casualty statistics, so should never have to choose between acting legally and protecting themselves.
Equally, it is our view that the enforcement of road traffic rules, and penalties for breaching them, should be proportionate to the potential danger imposed on other people, especially vulnerable road users (a principle which should also apply to off-road rights of way).
This is crucial for cyclists because they pose negligible risk to others, including pedestrians.
What’s more, police at the scene are less likely to allocate one of the top three ‘contributory factors’ (CFs) in road collisions to cyclists than to the other party involved.
Department for Transport (DfT) statistics show that, in collisions involving cyclists, 2016-2021 (GB):
- Almost two-thirds of the three most common CFs combined – ‘failed to look properly’, ‘failed to judge other person’s path or speed’, and ‘careless, reckless or in a hurry' – were allocated to the other party involved, not the cyclist.
- Almost 70% of ‘poor turn or manoeuvre’ CFs, the fifth most common, were allocated to the other party. (The fourth most common is ‘Road environment contributed’).
Please note: CFs do not attribute blame. Police at the scene of a collision fill in a STATS19 form, which invites them to choose up to six factors that, in their view, may have contributed, and allocate them to a party involved. CFs are therefore not the result of any forensic investigations, nor do they reflect the verdict in any subsequently court case.
“[…] those in charge of vehicles that can cause the greatest harm in the event of a collision bear the greatest responsibility to take care and reduce the danger they pose to others. This principle applies most strongly to drivers of large goods and passenger vehicles, vans/minibuses, cars/taxis and motorcycles.”
This concept, known as the ‘Hierarchy of Road Users’, also rightly means that:
“Cyclists, horse riders and drivers of horse drawn vehicles likewise have a responsibility to reduce danger to pedestrians.”
Note: the Highway Code for Northern Ireland has not yet been updated in the same way.
Some traffic offences apply only to drivers (e.g. on speed/mobile phone use), while others apply to cyclists as well (e.g. obeying traffic signals etc.) or specifically (e.g. on bike lights).
Breaking the Code’s advisory rules, which include ‘should/should not’ and ‘do/do not’ rules, may not lead to prosecution, but they can nevertheless be used as evidence to establish liability in court.
Where there is no law, regulation or local by-law prohibiting cyclists from doing something specifically, they can still be prosecuted for:
Note: the links above go to legislation for England, Wales and Scotland, but similar legislation applies in Northern Ireland.
Also, if someone's evidently riding irresponsibly, they can be penalised for anti-social behaviour; and, in England and Wales, councils can use Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) to prohibit or restrict certain activities, including cycling, with infringements attracting a fine (unfortunately, Cycling UK has had to take issue with some PSPOs).
Otherwise, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, cyclists may be prosecuted for:
- 'Wanton or furious driving’ (because it applies to people in charge of ‘carriages’, which include cycles thanks to the judgement in the case of Taylor v Goodwin 1879).
- The common law crime of ‘culpable and reckless conduct’ can be used to prosecute cyclists who cause serious injury, while those who cause death can be prosecuted for ‘culpable homicide’.
The following summarises the most commonly discussed legal issues relating to cyclists:
Footpaths and pavements
Cycling on a footpath (a path away from the road) normally constitutes a trespass against the landowner, making it a civil and not a criminal matter (the situation is rather different in Scotland, thanks to access reform). Some footpaths are subject to local by-laws that prohibit cycling.
Cycling on the pavement (a footway next to a road) that has not been converted to shared use, however, is a criminal offence in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, irrespective of a person’s age or size of bike. (See also Fixed Penalty Notices below).
Statistics show that the vast majority of pedestrians hurt or killed on the pavement or verge are hit by motor vehicles.
Pedestrianised areas / pedestrian facilities
Motor vehicles and/or cycles can be prohibited or restricted from pedestrian zones, shopping streets and other vehicle restricted areas (VRAs) via ‘Traffic Regulation Orders’ (TROs), which it is a criminal offence to contravene.
Cycling UK, though, agrees with this advice given in Cycle Infrastructure Design: “There should always be a preference for allowing cyclists to access VRAs unless there is good evidence that this would cause significant safety problems.” In crowded conditions, most cyclists dismount anyway.
We also take the view that it is not illegal to push a cycle along a pedestrian facility of any kind. This is largely based on the judgement in the case of Crank v Brooks  RTR 441.
Local by-laws can make cycling in or through a shopping precinct a criminal offence – signs should make this clear.
Traffic signs and red lights
All drivers and people “propelling a vehicle” must obey traffic signs and automated traffic signals. (Cycles are vehicles in law).
By far, most pedestrians who are hurt in red light jumping collisions are hit by motor vehicles.
There is no alcohol/drug limit for cyclists, but cycling under the influence is an offence, the test being whether or not a cyclist is fit to ride.
Fitting and using bike lights
Cycles must be fitted with approved front and rear lights, lit, clean and working properly, when being ridden between sunset and sunrise. Watch our video for more.
Rules exist for e-bikes, which in law can only be ridden by people aged 14 or over.
- For much more detail on legislation applicable to cycles and cyclists, see: What’s legal – and what’s not – on your bike
Dealing with irresponsible and illegal behaviour
As mentioned, Cycling UK believes that cyclists, like all road users, should behave responsibly and within the law. Principally, this means:
- making their intentions clear
- ensuring they are competent to ride in traffic
- being aware of motorists’ requirements
- obeying traffic signals, signs and markings unless this places them in direct danger
- ensuring that they and their cycles are visible at night
- maintaining their cycle so as not to cause a danger to themselves or others.
While failure to do any or all of the above may be inspired by recklessness and lack of consideration for others – exhibited by the minority and by no means exclusive to cycling – so can: age, inexperience, unhelpful traffic regulations and/or the fear of riding on the roads because of high motor traffic speeds and volumes, lorries and unsafe infrastructure (such as pinch points, narrow cycle lanes and hostile junctions).
Addressing offending or irresponsible behaviour means dealing with it appropriately, proportionately and targeting the source.
- See our Cycling advice section for video guides and other advice on how to ride safely.
Tackling hostile road conditions
Poor and fragmented infrastructure and hostile road conditions, which are all too common, can make cyclists’ journeys very intimidating and hazardous indeed.
Trying to avoid a horrible road, for instance, is why children might sometimes ride on the pavement with their parents.
High-quality infrastructure, plus lower traffic volumes and speeds can help solve this. For example:
- If pavement cycling is proving to be a nuisance, it makes sense to engineer safer conditions on the roadway itself by, say, lowering speeds, reducing motor traffic volumes, or else by building dedicated space for cycling. Indeed, Cycling UK believes that pavements should be for pedestrians, and that turning any of them into shared use should only be considered as a last resort and implemented very carefully.
- At signalised junctions, cycle-only ‘early starts’, and/or phasing the lights to give cyclists enough time to clear the junction safely before motor traffic is released onto it, may help design out red light jumping.
For more on cycle-friendly infrastructure see:
- Cycle Infrastructure Design, LTN1/20, (DfT, 2020)
- Active Travel Act Guidance, (Welsh Government, 2021)
- Cycling by Design, (Transport Scotland, 2021 update)
Using discretion over Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs)
When FPNs for footway cycling were first introduced in England and Wales, the then Home Office Minster, Paul Boateng MP wrote to Ben Bradshaw MP saying they were:
“… not aimed at responsible cyclists who sometimes feel obliged to use the pavement out of fear of the traffic, and who show consideration to other pavement users when doing so. This is not a clamp down on responsible cycling, and I know the police service too do not see it in that way.” (9/7/1999).
In 2014, this advice and a reminder that police should use their discretion over fining people for cycling on the pavement was re-circulated to police forces, and endorsed by the then cycling minister, Robert Goodwill MP.
FPNs cannot be issued to children under ten, as they are below the age of criminal responsibility.
Offering alternatives to FPNs or prosecution
Cycling UK believes that police officers should have the option to send cyclists of any age found riding on the pavement on a national standard cycle training course (although stronger enforcement may be necessary for those posing a danger or riding in an obviously antisocial manner).
After all, the police have the discretion to offer an offending driver a National Driver Offending Retraining Scheme (NDORS) course as an alternative to prosecution. There is, arguably, a much stronger justification for applying this approach to cyclists, whose potential to cause harm is so much lower.
Also, some cyclists offend – particularly teenagers riding on the pavement – because they don’t know how to ride on the roads safely, confidently or responsibly, and are not aware of the law. A Bikeability course, or the equivalent, should help, not just for offending cyclists, but everyone who cycles or would like to do so.
As for bike lighting regulations, some police forces are prepared to cancel FPNs for contravening them if the cyclist subsequently shows that they have fitted a set. This seems like a good idea to us.
- Highway Code
- Ministry of Justice: Criminal Justice System Statistics Outcome by Offence data tool (England and Wales): use this to search for the latest number of people prosecuted, convicted and sentenced for motoring crimes or pedal cycle offences (137). Take care when interpreting these statistics because they can be influenced by many things, including levels of police activity and of cycling.
- Cycling UK press release on proposals for new dangerous cycling laws, 4 March 2018.