Sharing the road: understanding the rules for cyclists and drivers

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If you've ever seen cyclists riding two abreast and wondered if what they're doing is legal, take a look at our cycling mythbuster.

two-cyclists-on-a-country-road

From improving your physical fitness to reducing your carbon footprint, cycling has many benefits. And there's never been a better time to get into cycling, as the Department for Transport has announced it'll be updating the Highway Code, with a focus on keeping cyclists and pedestrians safer on our roads.

The revisions to the Highway Code will also advise on some of the main safety issues facing cyclists and pedestrians, such as remembering to check the road is clear before opening your car door. The Department for Transport has also issued changes to the national standard for cycling training manual.

While the changes implemented by the Department for Transport are centred on helping drivers do their bit to help keep cyclists and pedestrians safe, it’s crucial to remember that cyclists and pedestrians are at the forefront of their own safety.

Cyclists and pedestrians must follow the rules of the road too, but they also sometimes act in ways that doesn’t make sense to drivers. With that in mind, we’ve put together this guide to help clear up why cyclists do what they do on the roads, and what they need to do to ride legally.  

Bear in mind the Highway Code isn’t a direct statement of the laws, but a combination of advice and mandatory rules which apply to all road users in the UK.

Let's take a look at some frequently asked questions about cycling. 

Can you drink and cycle?

No. While there’s no breathalyzer test or legal limit for cycling under the influence, if caught, you could face a £1,000 fine. If you’re stopped on your bicycle and deemed unfit to ride, you can be found guilty of an offence.

Additionally, cycling under the influence can be incredibly dangerous. Cycling while inebriated can make you ten times more likely to get injured than cycling sober.

Do cyclists have to stop at red lights?

Yes. Crossing the stop line at a red light is an offence, as is cycling through an amber light. The consequence for failing to stop at a red light is a £50 fine.

Do cyclists have to be single file, or can they ride two abreast?

There’s no law against cyclists riding two or even three abreast. Rule 66 of the Highway Code advises cyclists can ride two abreast and recommends they ride in single file if roads are busy or narrow.

Cyclists often ride two abreast for safety reasons, however, and Cycling UK advises that safety should be the overriding factor when deciding whether to ride single file or not.

Can cyclists ride in the middle of the lane?

Cycling in the middle of the lane is known as ‘taking the lane’ or ‘primary position’. Cyclists do this for several reasons, including:

  • Passing parked cars (in case the door opens suddenly)
  • To prevent traffic overtaking in a dangerous way on narrow roads
  • When turning or manoeuvring

This practice isn’t mentioned in the Highway Code and cyclists aren’t obliged to stay to the left of the lane to allow traffic to pass. According to Section 163, road users should: "Give motorcyclists, cyclists and horse riders at least as much room as you would when overtaking a car."

What counts as careless, dangerous or furious cycling?

Cycling carelessly is defined as cycling without care and attention or reasonable consideration to other road users. Dangerous cycling is, simply put, cycling dangerously.

While cyclists cannot be charged for speeding, they can be charged for ‘furious cycling’. If a cyclist is found guilty of causing injury while cycling furiously, they can face up to two years in prison. 

Cycling carelessly has a maximum fine of £1,000, while cycling dangerously can carry a fine of up to £2,500. Furious cycling without causing injury is subject to a fine of up to £1,000.

Do cyclists have to wear a helmet?

The Highway Code advises that cyclists should wear helmets, but this is not a legal requirement. However, there are lots of reasons to wear a helmet, including protecting your head and improving your visibility to drivers through the reflective strips often fitted on them.

Do bicycles have to be fitted with lights?

Yes. When cycling after sunset you must have bright, working lights fitted to the front and back of your bike. It’s important to note that lights aren’t a legal requirement during the daytime, even if there’s reduced visibility.

That being said, it’s important for your safety that, should you still decide to cycle in poor conditions, you’re highly visible to cars and pedestrians.

Can more than one person ride on a bicycle at the same time?

It’s illegal for more than one person to ride a bike at any one time. ‘Giving a backie’ is an offence and you can be fined up to £200.

Do you have to wear hi-vis jackets when cycling?

The Highway Code advises cyclists to wear hi-vis or reflective clothing while cycling. This isn’t a legal requirement, however, but having reflectors on your bike is – although you only legally have to wear reflectors between sunset and sunrise. You must, by law, have a red rear reflector and four amber reflectors (one at the front and back of each pedal).

Can cyclists ride fixed gear bikes without breaks?

No. Not only is this extremely dangerous, but it’s illegal. Riding a bicycle on a public road without two efficient braking systems is an offence.

Does a cyclist have to use a cycle lane if one is available?

No – it’s not compulsory to use a cycle lane. It can make your journey safer, however, particularly if you aren’t very experienced or confident as a cyclist. You mustn’t cycle on the pavement at any time though.

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