Feature: Are you riding illegally?

Find out your rights and duties under UK law


Do you know what lights you should have on your bike, or even whether you’re allowed to do 25mph in a 20mph zone? We’ve been speaking to CTC road safety experts Chris Juden and Roger Geffen to get a comprehensive lowdown on the UK’s* cycling rights… and wrongs.

Being seen

Everyone knows they mustn’t drive a car at night without lights – but what do you need for your bike to be legal? The problem is that the majority of lights sold here are made outside the UK and aren’t specifically made to meet our exacting legal standards. This doesn’t mean they aren’t good lights. In fact it could be that some are too bright.

“If your lights cause undue dazzle or discomfort to other road users,” says Juden, “then you’re breaking the law and the police are within their rights to fine you. In practice, though, as long as your bike has a front white and red rear light it’s rare to be stopped and fined by the police.”

A 2005 amendment to The Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989 states that while flashing lights on bikes are now permitted, the bike must also be fitted with a steady front light. So you can use additional lights too, but just watch out how bright they are.

Juden adds: “Although it’s been illegal since October 1985 to ride in the dark without pedal reflectors – except on a bike made before that date – most clipless pedals don’t have them as the manufacturers think they’re unsightly.”

Brake for love

When it comes to brakes, The Pedal Cycle Construction and Use Regulations 1983 says you need two: one on the rear wheel and one on the front. “Fixed-wheel bikes that don’t have a front brake as well as the back pedal rear brake are illegal,” says Juden. “This applies to all bikes without two functioning brakes.” This is because it’s deemed impossible to safely conduct an emergency stop with just a rear brake.

Speed limits, though, are specific to motorists. “You aren’t acting illegally if you cycle at 25mph in a 20mph zone,” says Geffen. “However, ‘furious cycling’ is breaking the law, so if your speed is causing danger, you may still be stopped by police.” He recommends you always ride at a sensible speed for the situation and ensure you can stop in time.

On the road

There are a number of ‘must nots’ that apply to cycling on the road. For example, you mustn’t cycle on pavements (US: sidewalks), or carry a passenger unless your bike has been built or adapted to carry one; you mustn’t hold onto a moving vehicle or trailer, or cross the stop line when the traffic lights are red.

In most cases, breaking road rules will result in a £30 Fixed Penalty Notice, but that can be increased up to a maximum fine of £500. Cycling on the pavement will get you a fine. “But,” says Geffen, “some cities are trialling a scheme where cyclists caught on pavements can go on a course instead of the fine. This makes sense, as many people use pavements out of fear of cycling on the roads.”

The grey area, however, is children. “It isn’t legal for anyone to ride on a pavement,” says Geffen, “but children under 10 years old aren’t criminally responsible so they can’t be fined. What is unclear is if this makes the parent or guardian liable instead.”

Best behaviour

Filed under ‘other things you must not do’ are a number of rules governing your conduct on the road. For instance, you mustn’t ride in a dangerous, careless or inconsiderate manner. You can be fined up to £2,500 if you’re considered ‘dangerous’, and up to £1,000 if you aren’t paying ‘due care and attention’. You mustn’t ride when under the influence of drink or drugs, including medicine.

The Road Traffic Act of 1988 states it’s an offence to ride drunk or under the influence of drugs ‘if the rider is incapable of controlling the cycle’. “While the police can’t breathalyse you if they suspect you of being drunk riding,” says Geffen, “they can still use their own judgement – so if you look or act drunk, you can still be fined.”

* Unfortunately, in the US the legal situation for cyclists is less clear, as traffic laws are issued by individual states. While legislation governing automobiles is fairly universal, bicycle laws are more varied. Fortunately, the League of American Bicyclists offer a comprehensive listing of state bicycle laws at www.bikeleague.org/action/bikelaws/state_laws.php.