On a bleak English day in March 2019, The Right Honourable The Lord Winston stood in Parliament’s House of Lords and asked whether cyclists “riding bicycles in city centres should have a licence and third-party insurance?”

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Let’s take a look at Britain’s legal history of cycling – and its logic.

British law and cyclists

As you’d expect, British law deals with cyclists in an anachronistic and quaint fashion. When bicycles first appeared on British highways, Parliament found it convenient to categorise them as other vehicles of the day – namely horse-drawn carriages. And cyclists are allowed the same privileges as carriages.

This means that bicycles can freely operate on carriageways, dual carriageways, but not motorways. This means that, traditionally, there is a clear legal distinction between bicycles and motor vehicles – and as such, bicycles haven’t ever been required to meet the standards of motor vehicles.

UK introduces compulsory insurance

It is safe to say that in the early 20th century vehicle safety standards were not what they are today. A driver’s licence could be obtained without the need of a test, and so the government decided to introduce compulsory insurance to pay for third-party injury.

When the bill was introduced, carriages were exempt, primarily because the risk of a 15mph horse-drawn vehicle running out of control was significantly lower than a 30mph motor vehicle taking a corner too fast. In Britain, bicycles were generally treated like horses, and to this day neither horse riders nor cyclists are required to have insurance to use public roads.

Animals and children

There’s an old saying in the TV industry – never work with animals or children. The same could be said for the road. In the UK there is currently no lower age limit for a child to cycle legally on the road. In theory, you could be driving your car and see a 3-year-old sharing your lane on a balance bike. Legally. That’s why UK schools offer a Cycling Proficiency programme.

This does put a huge onus on motor vehicle drivers to be alert and aware of who we share the roads with – but presumably that’s business as usual for any of us driving a £20,000 vehicle. The reality is that pedestrians and drivers have to share our public space with many hazards that aren’t licenced or insured, and many of them aren’t as conscientious, or predictable, as cyclists.

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