Licences For Cyclists: As Contentious As Brexit?

Did you watch ITV’s “Good Morning Britain (GMB)” programme on 1st April? If yes, you’ll have seen the furious argument that erupted between one of the presenters, Piers Morgan and Stanley Johnson, father of Boris, the Conservative MP and former London Mayor. They were discussing the proposal made by the IVF specialist, Professor Lord Robert Winston, that cyclists should be required to display licence plates. As the Sun journalist, Phoebe Cooke, reported on 29th March, Winston had claimed that two days previously, when he challenged a woman in the Bloomsbury area of London for riding her bicycle on the pavement, she became very antagonistic, swore profusely, snatched his mobile out of his hand, threw it into the road, kicked him, then rode off. Winston explained to Cooke that he hadn’t reported the incident to the police because it would be impossible to identify the cyclist.

Subsequently, on GMB, Morgan lambasted what he depicted as the “completely unaccountable cyclists creating havoc on the road”. Johnson’s response was that introducing licences for cyclists would be “crazy” and that the costs involved would be huge. The Manchester-based criminal defence lawyer, Nick Freeman has noted that the relationship of cyclists not only with pedestrians but especially with motorists has become “combustible and likely to get worse”, due to the booming popularity of cycling: More than 2 million people in Britain cycle every day. He acknowledges that many cyclists are “lawful road users” but is critical of the ones who “swathed in balaclavas or dark helmets, weave in and out of traffic with impunity, who feel untouchable because they remain anonymous”. He advocates a compulsory proficiency assessment for intending cyclists as well as the equivalent of the annual MOT test for motor vehicles: “Brakes, tyres, they all need to be checked”.

Freeman also cites the conclusions of the “Sharing The Road” survey conducted by the Halfords Bicycle company on behalf of YouGov and analysed by the “This Is Money” correspondent, Rob Hull: 59% of the 2,042 people questioned want all bikes to have registration plates, four out of five consider there should be tougher penalties for riders who jump red lights, 35% support the idea of a roadworthiness test for bikes and 65% feel strongly that cyclists should wear reflective clothing at all times to ensure that they are clearly visible to motorists and pedestrians. However, 80% also called for penalties to be increased for motorists behaving aggressively towards cyclists and 45% would like to see dedicated cycle lanes on all UK roads to “guarantee the safety of these vulnerable road users”.

Brian Canty, a contributor to “” has identified some of the situations that most annoy cycling commuters, such as: pedestrians, buses and cars encroaching on bike lanes (“stay away from them unless you are on two wheels”); other cyclists, for example, those who brake suddenly or are not completely focused because they are wearing earphones, are talking to friends, are still half asleep or simply admiring the scenery; Bike lanes which suddenly end for no reason. Grant also concedes that some “smug and self-righteous” cyclists attract hostility because they profess to be saving the world by pedalling to work every day, ignore red lights, mount kerbs, ride down one-way streets the wrong way and think that sounding their bell and saying “sorry” is a sufficient apology.

The Independent columnist, Tom Batchelor, has meanwhile pointed out that cycling campaigners and some motoring groups are totally opposed to

the introduction of numbers plates on bicycles. Edmund King, President of the Automobile Association (AA), has dismissed the idea as both “impracticable and unnecessary” and has observed that the police anyway already have the power to detain cyclists who are breaking the law. The “Cycling UK” organisation similarly regards compulsory licensing and cycling training as unworkable and unjustifiable, not least because it’s unrealistic to expect children as well as adults to acquire licences. The Cycling UK campaigner, Sam Jones, told Batchelor that registration would be very costly to implement, a bureaucratic nightmare to administer, would deter both newcomers and occasional cyclists and that it makes no sense to put obstacles in the way of taking up an activity which is clearly so healthy and environmentally-friendly.

The Cycling UK website highlights the fact that other countries and cities such as Toronto and Switzerland have experimented with but then abandoned a variety of regulatory systems for cyclists. The organisation affirms that it doesn’t condone unlawful cycling on pavements but urges the police in such circumstances to make a distinction between “those whose behaviour is dangerous and antisocial and those who are acting out of concern for their own safety without presenting any threat to others”.

The Government, as Lord Ahmad confirmed while he was a Minister with the Department of Transport, has no plans to make insurance compulsory for cyclists, but does encourage them to take out liability insurance. Cycling UK emphasises that all its members are automatically covered for up to £10 million third party insurance and that they offer a discounted rate to members of affiliated groups.

Filed under: Healthcare, Society | Posted on April 9th, 2019 by Colin D Gordon

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