Number plates on bicycles: Why nowhere except North Korea has such a system

Why are cycling licence plates a bad idea, and what should the Department of Transport be doing instead to make our public spaces safer?

Last month UK Transport secretary Grant Schapps caused a stir by endorsing plans for mandatory insurance for cyclists, along with reforms to laws involving the Highway Code that would require all pedal driven bicycles to be fitted with registration plates. He since backed down saying that numberplates themselves were not an idea at the present time. His original comments were lauded by anti-cycling newspaper the Daily Mail, cutting deeper into the wounds of a culture war between different road user groups. This also came just a few weeks after plans to close a legal loophole to create a new offence of “Death by Dangerous Cycling” meaning anybody who causes an accidental death whilst riding a bike is given a prison sentence of up to 15 years (on par with driving), where current legislation means any perpetrators can only face a maximum 2 years. All well and good, but it has been 8 years since the Government promised a review into ineffective driving offences and punishments, there are surely more than that to show for it.

So let’s tackle the first issue. Mandatory cycle insurance and licence plates will be a fiscal nightmare. Firstly, with insurances, making it mandatory will inflate prices heavily making it an even greater expense for those who voluntarily have insurance policies, and giving non-insured individuals a new cost to factor in. Secondly, especially with dedicated cyclists, will own more bikes (each with a specific purpose or riding discipline) than they will motor vehicles. Do they all need seperate registrations as you would with cars, despite most voluntary insurance policies covering multiple bikes against damage or theft? Would it even be possible to recoup anywhere close to the funds required for setting up a system in the first place? (Spoiler alert, probably nowhere near). Believe it or not, dog licences were once a thing several decades ago, but the whole scheme was scrapped due to expense and inability to properly police such a system. Now, we just use microchipping through vet services to do a similar job as it already has owner and animal information stored in a central database primarily used for healthcare and medical history, and reuniting lost or stolen animals to their owners. No such database exists for bikes.

If you were to compile information on bicycles and riders in the same way that we currently do on cars, you would also need to compile data on make, model, age, colour and modifications. It’s not easy to know the manfacturing details and history of a bike, especially if it is a vintage, or is secondhand. A lot of high end bikes come as a frameset only option allowing you to build a completely custom bike from whatever components you wish. Also, people regularly change colour and components on an off-the-peg bike to make it fit better, for aesthetics or for performance gains. It is not uncommon to have two sets of wheels for a bike, one shallow rim set for training or climbing (or if its windy) and deeper wheels for flatter terrain and better weather, and different tyres to accommodate riding conditions. Accessories like mudguards and pannier racks are often added, removed or replaced. How much of this would need to be declared to a licence agency? I have asked members of my local cycling club on their bike ownership and modifications to show how complex this issue actually would be.

So even if you manage to implement a licencing system, how are you going to enforce it? Police forces are stretched well beyond capacity when it comes to enforcing existing road traffic laws as well as other general crime. Also, at what age do kids need insurance and licences? Do off-road specific bikes need licences, if they are not going to be used on the road?

Another consequence of a licencing system is that it would make accessing the sport even more expensive. Even cheap bikes would face an increase in consumer cost for registering and licencing them, and at at a significant proportion. Whilst the high-end bikes from specialist manufacturers can cost five-figure sums, where say a flat fee of £50* for registration is pocket change and could easily be built in to existing costs, you can buy a brand new bike (albeit with none of the sophisticated tech and development that adorns the premium machines) from generic online retailers for less than £250. That means that registration adds an additional 20% to the cost of purchase that could not be built in to such a price. People starting out, or just looking to use more active travel are going to be buying the cheap equipment as it serves a purpose rather than being a luxury item that an enthusiast would prefer to own.
*For all intents and purposes, this was just a random figure and is not indicative of any potential cost of registering and licencing a bike.
Most people on this end of the scale are not going to be confident on the roads and will use pavements, cycle paths and lanes as much as possible, and are unlikely to put themselves in amongst motorists where possible.

So for people who do ride more expensive and luxury orientated bikes, the enthusiasts, are more likely the target group of this propaganda. But this seems like a huge fallacy. Dedicated enthusiasts are likely to be members of the national governing body British Cycling. [1] BC has four membership levels: Fan, Commute, Ride, and Race. You immediately get complimentary 3rd party liability for being a member from Commute level, and discounted access to more comprehensive bike insurance policies from Ride. At Race, you are also covered for personal accident. In addition, organised races and non-race events by law have insurance policies as a duty of care should anything happen involving a participant. Non-race events will often have non-BC members taking part. Race licences also use a merit point system to ensure that beginner racers cannot enter races beyond their proven skills and abilities.

An additional proposal was to enforce road speed limits on cyclists. This in itself is also unenforceable as bikes are not fitted with any form of speed measuring technology as standard, and all aftermarket products that can measure speed would not conform to legal standards for speedometer readings. GPS speed tracking has its own inaccuracies, especially when on gradients, which is why when you use a Sat Nav in a car, you should not rely on its own speed measurements. The other alternative is to use a sensor system, either a centrifugal sensor attached to the hub or a magnetic sensor attached to the fork or stays and a clip-on magnet on the spokes. These are either manually calibrated by home users so can easily be fudged or rely on GPS data to calibrate, again linking in discrepancies. In most situations, cyclists will never be able to reach speed limits as lower speed limits in built up areas come with traffic which will slow you down, even if you can filter through. I have only ever managed to get over 30mph on 50mph roads or higher when going down steep hills, and over 45mph with a tailwind.
Speed perception is another factor. 30mph on a bike feels incredibly fast simply because you are objectively small at that velocity; yet in a large family car the exact same speed feels quite slow as your upright seating position and vehicle size gives the sensation of a lack of speed, especially when the vehicle is capable of travelling much faster.

So could the Government use British Cycling as a licencing agency?

In short, no. BC are a sports governing body and membership union, and are a seperate entity to a Government Department. BC are one of many organisations against the stance of licences for the same reasons listed in this page. Even if the Government was to force involvement, its membership database is missing a lot of the information that would be required to make a licence structure for bikes, as its own structure is solely for logging its members and not their equipment. I am a BC Race member (silver) and hold a provisional race licence. However none of my equipment information is stored on file as there is no provision to provide it. So the Government would still need to fork out on a bicycle database for licencing.

The idea is universally unpopular amongst its target group as it is both unreasonable and financiallly unviable. This is why nowhere in the free world has such a system implemented, even if it has been mooted by authorities the world over. The only place known to have such a system is North Korea, where prior to a licencing system, bicycles were banned in its capital city until 1922. The whole saga just seems like a populist trope by the Government to gain support and votes from a majority group (motorists) despite having no reasonable will or justification to follow through with such plans.

Furthermore, a public petition for mandatory testing, tax and licencing that recently closed garnered a whopping 262 signatures (!). Just the 99,738 short of forcing a debate in Parliament, then. So in reality, most of the public just simply don’t care. This is just a small minority shouting much louder than everyone else []. Considering that more important petitions such as renaming the SS Sir David Attenborough to its original poll winning name Boaty McBoatface garnered way more than that, I think that the UK Parliament have more important things to worry about(!).

Also, did you know, that if you hold a UK driving licence, and you do get convicted of an offence involving a bicycle (such as running red lights or dangerous manouvres), you can earn penalty points on your driving licence?
Most enthusiast cyclists also are licenced to drive and own cars too.

What about law changes and the Highway Code?

Plans were announced to introduce a specific “Death by Dangerous Cycling” offence to close a legislative loophole that gave perpetrators a ridiculously lenient sentence. Many dedicated cyclists approve of such a move because the introduction of such a law makes sense. However the nature of its unveiling in isolation has lead to many cycling organisations challenging the way in which it has been announced to the public. Back in 2014 the Government promised a review into ineffective motoring offences, as the police battles with persistent law-breaking and bad practices by a minority of motorists that go unpunished or are given excessive leniency.

An anecdotal segway, cyclists have said in jest that they “Support bike licences providing they enforce the number plates to be 1.5m wide to stop close passes”. This is in response to the attitude of a vocal minority of motorists who take offence to the significant Highway code changes implemented at the beginning of this year. Not only were they badly publicised, they were ridiculously misinterpreted by the anti-cyclist brigade and as a consequence have not really made cycling any safer. Despite close pass laws being strengthened by including a set distance, the ignorant few who already put people in danger have made no changes to their behaviour, and in some cases, the level of entitlement has lead to some people being deliberately more aggressive.

I am also a motorist, I own a car and have held a full UK driving licence for 9 years. I also use a 3.5t capacity van on occasions for work purposes. The level of bad practice i have seen from all my points of view are shocking, and seem to be worse than ever following the pandemic. The near empty roads and top speed capabilities of modern vehicles (even the non-performance orientated) meant that people got used to travelling faster during lockdowns when they needed to move around. Now traffic and congestion levels are back to pre-pandemic levels or worse, drivers have become noticeable more impatient because of no longer being used to the delays being experienced. Even the most courteous and careful of drivers will make mistakes, or fall into bad habits that are not all necessarily illegal. I include myself in this, though I do try to make a conscious focus not to repeat mistakes.

Almost all drivers will at some point fall into a bad habit such as taking corners quicker than 10mph as recommended, driving too close to a vehicle in front, accelerate through changing traffic lights to beat a red light, reversing onto a main road/out of a junction, forget to indicate, ignoring pedestrians at marked crossings, unneccessarily giving way when having priority, or poor lane positioning etc. Whilst none of these are actually illegal, they are not recommended in the Highway Code and are considered bad habits that would potentially fail a driving test. A large minority of drivers will regularly or accidentally creep over speed limits, encroach on stop lines and cycle boxes at traffic lights, ignore Turn Left/Right Only signs at junctions, cutting corners at junctions by entering roads either fully or partially in the opposite lane, clutch riding when stationary instead of using the handbrake, minor parking offences, idling the engine when parked, and use hazard lights to thank drivers (yes, it is technically classed as improper use and is illegal!) to name the most common. A minority also act deliberately through speeding and dangerous overtakes/undertakes and running red lights, both permanent and temporary. I have regularly seen temporary lights change red and 3, sometimes 4 cars still pass the stop sign despite having ample space and time to stop. I have even been overtaken by cars whilst on a bicycle stopping for a red light in this manner at both types of infrastructure. Yet, becuase 999/1000 of incidents go unpunished and without causing accidents, people continue to do them.

Local papers are littered with articles of insances of bad driving such as speeding operations [2], uninsured/untaxed/unlicenced drivers and vehicles being pulled over or involved in an accident, or incidents of distracted (phone using) or incapacitated drivers (drug/drink driving). Articles are published like this one almost daily basis and this is where the ineffective offence review needs to be stepped up. All of these problems push the price of motoring up by increasing insurance premiums, tax levels and the like.

What makes things worse are that the vocal minority of groups get angry at articles about mobile police units catching speeders. Not because of the speeding motorists, but because the police are there doing their job, and having to slow down for speed cameras in order to not get caught slows down their ultimate progression; a level of entitlement which makes the roads more dangerous.

So what review points are cycling groups recommending in regards to overall traffic management?
-Better, more enforcable policing methods for offences to ensure a better conviction rate
-Tightening restrictions that allow offending motorists to keep licences beyond the automatic 12 point ban threshold
-Harsher punishments for previously common transgressions, and for serious and repeated offences
-An improvement to Operation Snap where public send dash/helmet camera footage of transgressions, allowing for easier reporting and greater follow-up of offences (again leading to better conviction rate) and a complaints and review system where decisions not to prosecute can be appealed or must be explained (this will also end victim blaming as people do make errors but that is no excuse for others to wilfully ignore the law).
-Increase funding for Cycling Proficiency schemes (Bikeability) for schoolchildren so more kids can take part and learn how to use the roads on a bike safely
-Introduce or increase levels of Cycling-specific Highway Code questions on Driving Theory tests to ensure all new drivers are aware of what cyclists are encouraged to do for safety whilst out on the road. Maybe when licences are renewed, all drivers must take a supplementary highway code refresher test before a renewed licence is issued. Maybe that would help motorists keep up with changes as they are made, considering there are always tweaks and changes made nearly every year.

This, alongside sensible cycling law proposals will help keep our roads safer for all users.

Right now, the Government needs to be doing what they can as active and public travel combined is the only solution to the environmental and congestion issues facing our major population centres. I will go into more detail about this soon and debunk myths and misconceptions in another post.



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