What does the law say about cycling?
The Highway Code (HC) is a mixture of hard rules and road-specific advice. Its rules and regulations apply to all road users in the UK, though Northern Ireland’s code differs slightly.
When a HC rule is expressed as a ‘must’ or a ‘must not’ do, then the rule in question contains a legal requirement imposed by legislation. That means failing to comply with it is a criminal offence.
Where HC language is less definite, such as ‘should or should not’, or ‘do or do not’, the rule doesn’t have a strict legal aspect. However, failing to comply with a rule like this can be used as a form of evidence in both criminal and civil proceedings.
Let’s look at the strict legal requirements for cyclists;
- You must have front and rear lights that are on, clean and working properly, when cycling between dusk and dawn. Even if it is past sunset but not yet dark, the legal lighting obligations for cyclists are defined by sunset and sunrise times, not the ‘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.
- You need a white light at the front and a red light at the rear of 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 from using a head-torch as an extra light.
- The regulations also now allow flashing lights, as long as they flash between 60 and 240 times per minute.
- Optional lights don’t need to meet these standards, but you can’t have an optional red light at the front and white light at the back. Instead, there must be a clear white/red difference between the front and the back of the bike.
- As with lights, the legal requirements for reflectors only apply between dusk and dawn, and include a red rear reflector and four amber pedal reflectors, one at the front and rear of each pedal. You might think that replacing an amber pedal reflector with a reflective heel strip or ankle band might work. Unfortunately, neither meets the legal regulations that relate to pedals.
- It is illegal to ride a bicycle on a public road, without having two corresponding and efficient braking systems – one on the front wheel, one on the back.
- It is worth noting that a fixed wheel bike with a front brake is legal (as long as the brakes are efficient!), but a fixed wheel bike with a rear brake only isn’t, as there’s no corresponding front wheel brake.
Cyclists do nots
Alcohol and drugs:
- Cycling on a road or public place, while intoxicated carries a fine of up to £1000. You won’t get tested, but if law enforcement can ascertain if you are under the influence enough to not have proper control of your bike, then you are getting fined.
- Interestingly, under the Power of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 you can be disqualified from driving for a cycling offence.
Dangerous cycling – you must not:
- Cycling carelessly means cycling without care, attention or consideration for other road users and can cost you £1000. If you cycle dangerously it can carry a £2500 max fine. The test for these offences is similar to that for careless and dangerous driving, meaning careless is below that of a competent and careful cyclist, and dangerous is far below that standard.
- If you cause injury by cycling furiously you can net two years max imprisonment.
- If you cycle furiously without causing injury you can, under certain byelaws such as those in national parks, be fined up to £1000. However, bikes carry no speeding penalty.
Red lights and stop lines:
- Crossing the stop line when the traffic lights are red is usually met with a £50 fine, as is riding across a cycle-only single crossing, when the green light is not showing.
- Similarly, it is illegal to ride through an amber light.
- Technically cycling on the pavement is not illegal under the highway code. But, that does not mean it is a good idea to cycle on the pavements, as it is still regarded as an offence. However, there are many footpaths specifically for cyclists to use.
- The Home Office reaffirmed in 2014 that the police should employ ‘discretion’ when dealing with cyclists on pavements, under APCO guidance. This means cycling on the pavement is considered an offence, but that the responsibility is on the police to be judicious when disciplining pavement riding cyclists.
- Strangely, cycling into the pedestrian side of a segregated path, to go around a pedestrian in the cycle lane, you are still committing an offence.
Additional ‘must nots’ include:
- Holding onto a moving vehicle or object while cycling is not legal. This means you can’t recreate any scenes from Premium Rush, unfortunately.
- If it isn’t a tandem bike, it is illegal to have more than one person on your bicycle. So, no mates on the handlebars or on the back, unfortunately.
Highway Code dos and don’ts
Two abreast or single file or:
- It is entirely legal to ride two or more abreast. However, it is advised against. However, as aforementioned, doing so can be used as additional evidence for cycling without due care and concern.
- This means that no motorist can tell you to get into single file, as they don’t have more right to the width of the road than you do. This being said, to avoid confrontations, it is wise to leave cars space to pass.
Helmets and hi-viz:
- You should wear a standard meeting helmet that is the correct size for you and it fastened tightly (it doesn’t wobble if you shake your head about).
- While it is not illegal to not wear a helmet, we highly recommend doing so for your own safety
- Equally, it is not illegal to forgo fluorescent clothing at night or during the day. But, wearing them increases your visibility, always a good thing on the road.
- Cyclists lacking helmets and, when conditions suggest the wisdom of wearing one, hi-viz are often criticised in the media, and these omissions are often used in injuries to determine factors that may have led to a cyclist’s death. With this in mind, we, again, recommend both these items of equipment.
Riding outside the cycle lane:
- You do not have to make use of cycle lanes if you don’t want to. But, why waste all the money the council just paid having them installed?
- If you feel that the cycle lane is poorly maintained, laid out or downright dangerous, you are free to opt for the open road. Equally, you can also not use a perfectly fine cycle lane, if you so wish.
Riding in the middle of the lane:
- You are allowed to cycle in the centre of the lane, rather than keeping to the left. Indeed, sometimes this is the safest option for you at a given time.
- Neither police officers nor motorists can tell you to bear left, but, like before, when you can you should – just to let those road rage prone drivers pass.