I’m an avid cyclist.

On most journeys, I’ll cycle, whether it’s sunny or raining. I do this partly because I care about the environment, but also because it’s cheaper than public transport; because it’s usually quicker; and also because it keeps me fit.

Cyclists wait patiently at a red traffic light

But when I talk to people about cycling, invariably at some point during the conversation, someone will mention that “all cyclists go through red lights” or that they have “no respect for the law”.

“They need to be taxed and insured,” they might say.

“I pay road tax. Only when they do too, will I have any respect for them.”

“Drivers pass a test. They have mirrors, and indicators, and registration numbers. They have road sense.”

“If bikes had registration plates, maybe they’d have more chance of being caught, so wouldn’t break the law so much.”

I’ve heard all these arguments many times. So I decided to go to the Metropolitan Police and check on the statistics: do cyclists really break the law so much more than motorists?

This chart covers the last three years. Because of public demand, on many occasions, police run campaigns: they wait at junctions where cyclists are often reported as going through on red, and stop them when they do. That explains the large increase in numbers of cyclists stopped from 2008 to 2010. It may also explain the relatively small increase in the number of vehicles stopped.

All traffic light offences, including those caught on camera

The number of cycle offenders pales into insignificance, as you can see. The number of people being caught be be decreasing naturally as people learn where the traffic camera as, or could be due to camera being removed – or simply not in use because of budget cutbacks. Either way, the number of cars which are caught going through red lights is far higher than the number of cycles.

Taking out the traffic cameras

I then thought it was a bit unfair to show just that chart, since cycles can’t be caught on camera. So I took out the camera offences, and showed just those witnessed by an officer.

Traffic light offences witnessed by a police officer

Traffic light offences witnessed by a police officer

Just looking at this, police fined or prosecuted cyclists 3,581 times. Meanwhile, they spotted 3,945 vehicles going through red lights. So despite campaigns to catch cyclists, and despite reducing numbers of working traffic light cameras, more drivers than cyclists go through on red. Essentially, many drivers are fearless of driving through a red traffic light, despite the risk of being caught via their number plate, and the points they might get on their licence.

When will cyclists pay road tax? No pay, no say!

Road tax was actually abolished by Winston Churchill in 1937, because he didn’t want drivers to think they owned the road. In fact, drivers pay Vehicle Excise Duty (VED), or car tax. They pay to drive a vehicle on the road. And VED is based on emissions – so even if bicycles were subject to VED, the amount they pay would be zero. Just like a milk float, or an electric car. Many other vehicles also don’t pay “road tax” – including police, ambulances, disabled people’s vehicles and members of the royal family.

The ironically named I Pay Road Tax site points out that the money generated by motorists isn’t a fund to repair roads and build new ones; it’s money that goes straight into the national pot, the Treasury’s Consolidated Fund, the public purse.

Airline passengers pay taxes when they fly from British airports but nobody suggests all this money should go to building more runways. Drinkers and smokers pay big-time for their tipples and their filter tips but the billions raised by duties on booze and ciggies are not spent on bigger and better pubs, or swankier tobacco emporiums.

When he was Chancellor, in 1925, Winston Churchill railed against ‘Road Fund’ ring-fencing:

“Entertainments may be taxed; public houses may be taxed; racehorses may be taxed…and the yield devoted to the general revenue. But motorists are to be privileged for all time to have the whole yield of the tax on motors devoted to roads. Obviously this is all nonsense…Such contentions are absurd, and constitute…an outrage upon the sovereignty of Parliament and upon common sense.”

Is cycle licensing a good idea?

This page gives an excellent run down of the pros and cons of bicycle licensing. Basically, it points out that it’s never been a success; in fact, many places used to have cycle licensing, but cancelled it because it cost far more to administer than it brought in.

Even if lots of other countries did have a great success with cycle licensing, the argument that “they do it in other countries” doesn’t hold water: in other countries, they have ‘strict liability’, an insurance concept which helps to protect cyclists and pedestrians. The UK doesn’t want to follow this line, because drivers don’t want to be assumed to be the guilty party if they run someone over or crash into a cyclist.

And, as we’ve seen, licences don’t stop people breaking the law.