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Cycling law and the truth: answering six common cycling questions

Posted on 10 June 2024

There are many common cycling questions on what can and can’t be done whilst cycling on a public road. But what are the answers? 

Cycling has become increasingly popular in recent years. It is an eco-friendly mode of transport, a good way to stay active and is a lot of fun. It has also become an increasingly popular way to commute. As such, understanding the laws regarding cycling on the roads is vital. 

Some questions are fairly straightforward, and others need a little explanation. Robin Selley, a personal injury senior litigation executive at Leigh Day, answers six of these questions.  

Question 1: Cyclists have to wear a helmet in the UK? 

Wearing a helmet whilst cycling has been an issue under debate for many years, with arguments for and against it. The simple answer to this is no, there is no law in the UK requiring the compulsory wearing of a cycle helmet.

Question 2: Cyclists can ride two abreast?

This is another simple question to answer. Riding two abreast (side-by-side) is perfectly legal and is often recommended. The current edition of the Highway Code states: “you can ride two abreast and it can be safer to do so, particularly in larger groups or when accompanying children or less experienced riders.”

Why would cyclists ride two abreast? This is often for their safety, and the safety of everyone else around them. If you have a large group of cyclists stretched out in a line, it is harder for motorists to overtake them as the passing distance is extended. If cyclists are two abreast, this shortens the overtaking distance and makes this quicker and safer for motorists. 

Additionally, when cyclists ride two abreast it makes them more visible to other road users and it can help with group communication. Of course, different situations benefit different formations and the safety of the most vulnerable should be at the forefront of the decision to ride in single file or two abreast.  

Question 3: Cyclists don’t pay road tax?

This statement is entirely correct, because no-one does! ‘Road tax’ was abolished in 1937 and replaced by Vehicle Excise Duty (VED). Motor vehicles used on public roads must have a paid for VED, the cost of which is dependent on the vehicle’s emissions. There is no fee for electric cars and bicycles. 

The reality is that the funds raised from vehicle tax goes into the pot of general government taxation. All taxpayers therefore contribute to the costs of road building and maintenance. 

Question 4: Cyclists don’t have insurance?

Car insurance became mandatory under the Road Traffic Act of 1930 but only for motorised vehicles. It is therefore not required by law to have cycling insurance.

Whilst there is no legal requirement, many cyclists are in fact insured. Some home insurance policies will provide cover for damage caused when cycling, as will third-party protection provided through membership of cycling organisations such as British Cycling. 

Question 5: It is illegal to ride on the pavement?

This statement is correct. The law on this matter is truly archaic, and dates back to Section 72 of the Highways Act 1835, which prohibits “wilfully riding” on footpaths.

The Highway Code also states: “You must not cycle on a pavement.” Riding a bike on the pavement is punishable by an immediate £30 fixed penalty notice fine, under Schedule 3 and Section 51 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988. 

There can be some exceptions, for example cycling on pavements with children where there is no safe alternative is usually tolerated. If you are speeding along on your best race bike, it’s best to stay in the cycle lanes or risk a fine! 

Question 6: There is a fine for careless and dangerous cycling?

This is correct. If a person rides a bike on a road without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration for other people using the road, they are guilty of an offence under Section 29 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. The maximum fine is £1,000 for careless cycling or £2,500 for dangerous cycling.  

The standard applied to these offences replicates those for driving offences; careless cycling is a standard below that of a competent and careful cyclist; dangerous cycling is just that. 

The law of Causing Injury by Furious Cycling dates back to 1861. It was intended to apply to drivers of vehicles or carriages who cause bodily harm to anyone by “wanton or furious driving”. As bicycles were classed as carriages, this law applies to cyclists and has been applied in modern times.  

Regardless of where you are riding your bike, the most important thing to ensure is that you are cycling safely. Make sure you are aware of other vehicles, cyclist and pedestrians around you.

Unfortunately, incidents do happen. If you are in a bike collision it is important to know what to do in the aftermath. Our Handle It Right two-part series helps to explain what to do immediately after an accident. Read part one here.

About Robin Selly  

Robin’s long career in law started when working for a firm of Parliamentary Agents. He moved into personal injury and has spent many years working for both Claimants and Defendants. Robin has worked across a range of road traffic collisions. 

Robin genuinely understands the need for the protection of cyclists and vulnerable road users, and has acted for a range of clients, from Olympians to commuters. Read Robin’s full biography here.

Robin Selley

Senior litigation executive

Robin Selley is a senior litigation executive in the personal injury department.

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