Regulating cyclists and cycling
This briefing covers calls to impose extra regulations on cycling and cyclists through licensing, insurance and tax. It explains why such measures would:
- make no or only negligible difference to people’s safety
- discourage cycling and, in doing so, adversely impact on public health and the environment
- needlessly burden the police
- be a costly and bureaucratic nightmare
We also explain why taxing people for cycling is unwarranted.
Please see our companion briefing on cyclists and the law for existing regulatory measures.
Road safety and behaviour
Every road casualty is one too many and, thankfully, it is very rare for someone riding a cycle to be involved in a pedestrian fatality.
When it does happen, however, it often excites strong media interest, typically triggering demands for number plates on all bikes, licences for cyclists and other sweeping regulatory measures.
The media are less likely to report that:
- Overall, people who cycle pose very little risk to others, including pedestrians - 98% of pedestrians hurt in road collisions are hit by motor vehicles.
- Cyclists are much more likely to be hurt in collisions with motor vehicles than they are to hurt anyone else, but less likely than other parties to be allocated a ‘contributory factor’ by police at the scene.
- Most adults (87%) who cycle also hold a driving licence (see below)
- Unsurprisingly, it’s complex, heavy and potentially very fast vehicles that cause by far the greatest harm on the roads – motor traffic, in other words.
The risk posed to others by driving is not in any way commensurate with the risk posed by cycling, a fact that rules, regulations and their enforcement need to embody.
… 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.
Highway Code, England, Wales & Scotland
Operating complex machinery which, if not properly controlled, has the capacity to cause serious harm, needs to be highly regulated for everyone’s sake. This is why people have to qualify for a licence to drive motor vehicles, and why driving is restricted to people aged at least seventeen and over.
But, given that the police, DVLA and the courts are always dealing with motoring offences, it’s clear that the rules of the road don’t incentivise all drivers to behave.
Of course, all types of road user suffer from a reckless minority – young males are known to be a higher risk group – and pedal cyclists are no exception.
But imposing extra regulations is unlikely to change the behaviour of the irresponsible, law-breaking minority, who’d be as averse to complying with any new batch of rules as they are with those already in existence, as proved to be the case in Toronto.
The heaviest impact would probably be felt by those who already take the law and other people’s safety and comfort seriously. For them, facing extra bureaucratic hurdles may prove too much and put a good proportion off cycling altogether, especially if they don’t cycle all that regularly (see below).
This would undermine road safety, not improve it. The more people who switch from driving cars to riding cycles – light objects averaging about 10 miles per hour and so straightforward to operate that even toddlers can manage it – the less hostile road conditions are for everyone.
Also, while around half the population owns or has access to a cycle, most cycling is an occasional rather than daily pursuit (see Qs 2 & 5 of our Cycling Statistics).
If the law banned people from pedalling off for a quick shop or spot of fresh air unless they hold a cycling licence and/or have fixed a number plate, many would simply give up – we already know that mandating cycle helmets supressed cycling in other countries.
What’s more, government ministers have repeatedly acknowledged that imposing new, mandatory requirements such as licensing on cyclists would undoubtedly lead to a drop in cycling (see attached appendix, link below).
Burdening the police for no good reason
Expecting the police to enforce regulations that would have no or little benefit for road safety is in no-one’s interest, especially as their resources are so stretched.
Even if supplied with a licence plate number and full details, officers find it challenging enough to pursue every single report of bad driving, particularly if they think a breach is “minor” and know that no one has been hurt.
Reports of infringements involving number-plated cycles are highly unlikely to attract a more robust response, unless the incident is serious or fatal in which case they would respond anyway as an emergency service, irrespective of registration numbers or licences.
Police forces need to focus their limited resources on protecting the public from real dangers which, in the case of road use, mainly come from cars and their drivers.
Nightmarish, disproportionate and costly bureaucracy
Firstly, as the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 provides for the registration of mechanically propelled vehicles, the Government would have to change the law to include cycles or cyclists - and changing any law is almost always a convoluted and lengthy process.
Then, if these and other necessary legislative changes did make it through, the taxpayer would have to fund extensive upgrades to the relevant computer systems to cope with around:
- 41 million licensed motor vehicles (UK)
- 41.6 million people with full and 9.5 million people with provisional licences (for GB at least); PLUS
- 29.5 million cycles and probably a lot more as this figure, which is based on England’s ownership figures extrapolated to the UK, does not account for people with more than one cycle
- Potentially, around 22 million people who ride bikes at least once a year (based on findings for England). Although, to be fair, it would probably be a lot fewer than that, given that the new hoops may well put so many off.
The system would also have to issue provisional cycle licences, log successful test candidates, track cycles as they change hands, come up with a SORN equivalent and refund people whose bikes are out of use for a while (e.g. in winter).
On top of that, tough decisions would have to be made about how or if to regulate children.
Younger age groups are most likely to own cycles, tend to love cycling and currently have the same legal rights to cycle as adults. Would they too have to qualify and fit licence plates (on one bike after another, presumably, given that children grow), or wait till they reach driving age?
Regulating child cyclists, indeed, proved to be another significant undoing of Toronto’s bicycle licensing bylaw.
This is not to say that Cycling UK doesn’t strongly advocate cycle training (‘Bikeability'), not just for all school children, but for adults and offending cyclists too.
We also encourage cyclists to take out 3rd party insurance and automatically cover our members for up to £10 million.
But the repercussions of making this compulsory, or banning people from cycling without a licence or registering their cycles would be extreme and far from cost-effective for decision-makers, administrators and the police – all needlessly because, as mentioned above, cycles cause very little harm when compared to motor vehicles.
The question of tax
More than likely, people who cycle are already paying for the roads they use through local council tax and general taxation. Most of them drive too (87%), so are paying all the levies required of drivers anyway.
They’ll also be contributing heavily to major roads they can’t use as cyclists (motorways) or are less likely to use (A roads). In fact, most cycling (85%) happens on minor roads which, mile for mile, aren’t funded to the scale of major roads (when measured in miles, only 13% of road lengths in GB are major, but they attracted 45% of public sector expenditure on roads in the financial year 2021/22).
Also, cycle wheels don’t inflict nearly the damage that motor vehicles do to road infrastructure, which costs £millions to repair each year.
As for Vehicle Excise Duty (VED), if cycles had to be registered the first payment would be £0, because they do not emit CO2 (there is no charge for zero emission cars either, when they are first registered). Although the subsequent charge is not based on CO2 emissions, the likely rate for bikes would probably also be £0, given the £0 rate electric cars.
Personal safety equipment/bells
Cycling UK also opposes making cycle helmets and/or hi-vis clothing compulsory (please see attached evidence briefing on hi-vis, link below).
We also feel that there is no need to make it mandatory for people to keep a bell on their cycles. Bells are already compulsory at the point of sale and many cyclists never remove them, but expecting the police to enforce against the absence of a bell (and/or neglecting to ring it) is another unrealistic idea. In busy urban situations, it’s often impossible to hear a bicycle bell ring, in fact, and there are other ways of warning others, not least by calling out politely.