Arguably nothing causes more animosity on the roads than the relationship between cyclists and motorists.
And a regular cause of this is the lack of understanding when it comes to what those on bikes can and cannot do, from types of road-users.
Riding two abreast, riding in the middle of the lane, with or without lights…. are they legal, are they advisable?
Wales Online has looked into the issue to get a better understanding of Highway Code.
Remember the the code is not the law itself, but combines advice and the rules which apply to all road-users in the UK.
Where something is expressed as what you ‘must’ or ‘must not’ do in the Highway Code, this is a legal requirement imposed by legislation. Breach of this would be a criminal offence.
Where a Highway Code rule is expressed in advisory terms, using words such as ‘should/should not’, or ‘do/do not’, the rule doesn’t reflect any legal requirement
The law: What cyclists must do
Red lights and advanced stop lines
Crossing the stop line when the traffic lights are red (jumping red lights) is an offence, 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 of course position themselves ahead of the motorised traffic but behind the ASL, though crossing the ASL on red is still an offence.
Police usually deal with instances of cyclists jumping red lights with a fixed penalty notice fine, typically £50.
Lights on your bike
Cyclists must have approved front and rear lights, lit, clean and working properly, when cycling between sunset and sunrise.
Cyclists must have a white light at the front and a red light at the rear, which is visible from the front and rear respectively and fixed to their bike.
The regulations also now allow flashing lights, provided they flash between 60 and 240 times per minute.
As with lights, the legal requirements for reflectors only apply between sunset and sunrise. A red rear reflector and four amber pedal reflectors, one at the front and rear of each pedal, are mandatory.
Most pedals for cleats are not designed with reflectors in mind. Whilst common sense might suggest that replacing an amber pedal reflector with a reflective heel strip or ankle band might suffice, neither meets the legal requirements.
It’s an offence to ride a bicycle on a public road without two efficient braking systems, which must operate independently on the front and rear wheel.
Alcohol and drugs
Cycling on a road or other public place (including a bridleway) whilst 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 a cyclist is under the influence to the extent that they are incapable of having proper control of their bike.
There are two offences for unsafe cycling: careless cycling, and dangerous cycling.
The former, careless cycling, means cycling without due care and attention or reasonable consideration for other road users.
Guilty cyclists can be fined up to a £1,000 maximum fine.
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.
There are two further offences: causing injury by cycling furiously (two year maximum imprisonment) and cycling furiously (no injury caused).
Riders can’t be prosecuted for speeding whilst cycling as speeding offences are specific to motor vehicles, although there are exceptions where local bye-laws apply, such as the Royal Parks.
Under the 1847 Town and Police Clauses Act cyclists 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.
Can you cycle on pavements?
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”, i.e a footway next to the highway
However, this is a grey area. The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) have issued guidance to all forces which says there must be “discretion in taking a reasonable and proportionate approach, with safety being a guiding principle”.
In other words, cycling on the pavement is an offence, but there is clear guidance that the police are supposed to exercise discretion.
Giving ‘backies’ to your mate
Giving your friend 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”.
Cycling: What the Highway Code advises
The following are not compulsory by law, and therefore there is no legal obligation for cyclists to conform to the following. But the Highway Code does advise following them for safety:
Single file or two abreast?
There is no law which prevents cyclists from riding two, or even three or more abreast.
There is advisory rule 66 of the HC, but this is not well-drafted.
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 to assume that riding more than two abreast is illegal when it isn’t.
Rule 66 further advises 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 believe cyclists should single out to avoid delaying motorists, forgetting that motorised users don’t have enhanced rights to the road over cyclists.
Motorist cautioned after passing dangerously close to cyclist near Bristol
Cycling UK agrees there are times when cyclists should single out, but it’s safety that should be the over-riding factor when making that decision. Not whether the driver behind might have to wait a few seconds before overtaking.
Do you have to wear a helmet for cycling?
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 believe whether or not to wear a helmet is a matter of personal choice.
Similarly with Hi-viz clothing; there is very little evidence to suggest that hi-viz (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.
Do cyclists have to use cycle lanes?
Use of cycle lanes is not compulsory.
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.
Cyclists are entitled to make their own choice, and the HC rule merely reflects that.
It comes as the number of violent attacks on cyclists has grown in Bristol. See more about it here:
Riding in the middle of the lane
Some cyclists choose to ride in the middle of the lane, or the “primary position”.
Whatever you call it, this means ‘taking the lane’, so cyclists are 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 the safest option. If there are parked cars to the left it allows sufficient space to avoid any car doors unexpectedly opening.
It can also discourage or prevent drivers from overtaking where there is insufficient space or it would be unsafe to do so.
Finally, it is where cyclists can most easily see and be seen.