Bike blog: your rights on the road

Home » Bike blog: your rights on the road

This week we’re delving into a potentially gnarly topic: your rights as a cyclist on the road. In some contexts, as I’m sure most cycling commuters with a few miles under their belt would agree, the notion of having rights as a cyclist feels somewhat flimsy thanks to occasional harassment from our four-wheeled road-sharing partners.

Nevertheless, we do have rights – and as campaigns for cycle-friendly cities and safe cycling celebrate more and more successes, in years to come our legal protection will surely improve. Here’s a few pointers on what the law says, and a few points of contention worth a head-scratch.

Your rights

Rules for Cyclists make up rules 59 to 82 of the Highway Code. These ‘rules’ are a mixture of recommendations and orders, so some can be followed at your discretion; furthermore, they are in addition to the rest of the road rules in the Highway Code. The gist is nicely digested in Transport for London’s Tips for Safer Cycling, but the main points are

Clothing: you should wear a helmet, as well as reflective and visible clothing to make it easy for drivers to spot you
Lights and reflectors: you must have a white front light and a rear red light, as well as a rear red reflector and amber pedal reflectors
Where to cycle: you should make use of cycling infrastructure there to help you, like cycle lanes and advanced stop lines. You should be careful when sharing space with pedestrians, and must not cycle on the pavement. You can cycle two abreast, but must cycle single file on narrow roads or at corners
Safety: you must not cycle dangerously, for instance cycling under the influence of alcohol or cycle with a passenger unless your bike is adapted for this purpose

And now, for the complexities…

Geekery obviously knows no boundaries, so it shouldn’t have surprised me to find that it’s possible to get really into the detail of cycling law and policy. There’s a website dedicated to exploring this topic for England and Wales and healthy debate online about some of the finer points of cycling legislation.

Some things which aren’t clearly articulated in the Rules for Cyclists include bike trailers (which must also be fitted with a rear light and reflector) and unicycles, which seem to be a legal black hole. Of most interest, though, might be the confusion over what exactly a footpath, footway or pavement is, and where in the road you’re meant to cycle. There’s a great explanation here of the former, and as for the latter, unfortunately there’s no clear directive, although the Government’s cycle training scheme recommends that cyclists ‘take the road’ to avoid being squashed by the gutter or hit by car doors opening.

..and the morality

Should cyclists follow the same road rules as motorists? This question seems to cause a fair amount of angst, online and offline, possibly because cycling often isn’t a neutral, non-partisan activity, but rather one imbued with political, social and environmental concerns. It’s also one that seems to end up creating an ‘other’ – drivers, hermetically sealed in their little metal caves.

Running red lights is one of the classic questions, and one that seems to create a lot of flak for cyclists from angered motorists and pedestrians. However, the law is unambiguous on that front, as cyclists must follow the Highway Code like other road users; this is the invariable result of campaigning for ‘vehicular cycling’ (making it safe to share the road with cars, rather than advocating separating cyclists and cars in different lanes, a la the Netherlands).

I think it’s perhaps more interesting to consider what is supported, though not always articulated in law, by authorities – cycling two abreast, or taking a dominant position in the road. Both of these actions can cause some strident reactions in some motorists – and yet, both can often be integral to the safety of the cyclist.

Furthermore, having to adhere to a Highway Code which is designed with the driver in mind while also feeling endangered while sharing the road, and frustrated at cycle lanes being blocked by inconsiderately parked cars feels somewhat unfair, and only adds to the feelings of embitterment at drivers.

But surely it’s this divide which is the problem – if drivers aren’t aware that it’s legal to cycle assertively, or how essential this can be to a cyclists’ safety, or how much of an obstacle their parked car poses in a cycle lane, then it’s unlikely that they would become more tolerant. Equally, drivers may feel that cyclists need to be more understanding of their needs, by ensuring that they’re properly lit and visible, or indicating at intersections.

Perhaps we need to spend some time in each others’ seats – or, preferably, be neither one nor the other.