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The rights you didn’t know cyclists have

Carlton Boyce / 07 March 2017 ( 22 February 2019 )

The law gives cyclists a number of rights in the UK, some of which might come as a bit of a surprise…

A cyclist navigates a road in the UK

Cycling can be a polarising way to travel. On the one hand the environmental and health benefits are beyond dispute, while on the other, we’ve all be terrorised by Lycra-clad couriers hurtling through the streets of just about every major city with equal disregard for pedestrians, motorists and the law alike…

But while the jury might be out on whether they’re angels or sinners, the law gives them a number of rights in the UK, some of which might come as a bit of a surprise!

Are cyclists allowed on footpaths?

While cycling on a pavement at the side of a road is forbidden in England, Scotland  and Wales, cycling on a bridleway is perfectly legal, although cyclists are advised to give way to pedestrians and horse riders as a matter of courtesy.

Incidentally, there is no exemption in law that allows children to cycle on the pavement in England and Wales, although they may be immune from prosecution by virtue of being under the age of criminal responsibility.

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Bicycle bell law

There is no legal requirement for a bicycle to be fitted with a bell; giving a warning by calling out is sufficient.

At one point bikes had to be fitted with a bell at the point of sale, but cyclists could walk out the shop and remove the bell, if they so wished; now a cyclist only need fit a bell if they want to, rather than because of any legal obligation. 

However, the Highway Code does advise consideration of other road users, in particular blind and partially-sighted pedestrians; although the cyclist calling out a warning as their bicycle approaches may be enough, fitting and using a bell may be the more socially responsible course of action.

The only equipment that a bicycle must legally have are reflectors and working brakes, plus front and rear lights if the cyclist intends to bike at night.

Lane splitting

Lane splitting or filtering is when a cyclist undertakes and overtakes cars in order to make faster progress through traffic, and it’s perfectly legal.

The Highway Code advises that road users should be aware of others filtering through traffic, though also mentions cyclists should avoid filtering in instances where they may come into conflict with other road users – eg on the approach to a junction.

Overtaking on the right wherever possible is, of course, generally the safer option in most circumstances, as undertaking on the left is more dangerous to the cyclist and should only be done when traffic is stationary.

Speed limits

Speed limits on public roads only apply to motor vehicles, not bicycles – although you might occasionally find local authorities has imposed speed limits on cyclists, and cyclists also have to obey speed limits in the Royal Parks.

But although speeding is not usually an offence in itself, cyclists who ride dangerously (risking causing injury to another person or serious damage to property) are committing an offence under section 28 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, and could be fined up to £2500.

Careless cycling (when a cyclist uses the road without due care and attention or consideration for other road users) is also an offence under section 29 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, and can attract a fine of up to £1000.

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Cycling on the road

Cyclists have the same rights on the road as everyone else. This means that you must give way to them if you are turning left or right; remember, lane splitting is perfectly legal and so you must take account of the fact that they may be approaching on either side of your car and moving faster than you at that point.

The same goes for cyclists on a roundabout; you must give way to them in exactly the same way as you would for a car or another motor vehicle.

How to overtake cyclists safely

Stop signs and other junctions

While bicycles are still obliged to come to a halt at a ‘Stop’ sign, some intersections allow a space for them to pull ahead of stationary motor traffic and to use the full width of the road.

You should ensure you give cyclists adequate time to pull away after the lights change, too.

Cycling in the middle of the lane

Cyclists are entitled to use the full width of the lane in the same way as everyone else. They generally do this in towns and cities because a lot of car drivers have the dangerous habit of opening their doors in their path, which is a very good way of ruining a cyclist’s day, or even life.

They might also ride in the centre of the road to avoid potholes and drains, or to force drivers to overtake them properly, rather than trying to squeeze past them where there isn’t really enough space to do so safely.

And remember, if there is a cycle lane, cyclists have no obligation to use it – all too often cycle lanes are poorly designed and used by ambling pedestrians. But regardless of whether the cycle lane is currently in use by a cyclist, motorists must not drive or park in a cycle lane during its hours of operation.

Cycling two abreast

Cycling side-by-side is perfectly legal, and can even work in the motorists favour if a group of cyclists is riding together because overtaking a small group is faster and easier than having to overtake cyclists one at a time.

That said, the Highway Code recommends cycling in single file if the road is narrow or busy, or when cycling round a bend.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.