For the vast majority of road users, a licence and some sort of registration plate such as a number plate is a legal requirement to be able to drive on the road. But there is one group of road users who do not have to have any form of licensing, identification or even a formal qualification to use the public highways. That group is cyclists.
First taste of freedom
Most of us first learn to ride a bicycle at a very early age. It is often our first real taste of both freedom and responsibility. While cycling proficiency tests are now down to a matter of choice for individual schools, there is no other form of mandatory testing to ensure that someone is safe and proficient in the use of a bicycle and is familiar with the basic laws of the road. Cycling is one of the only forms of transport where you can literally go into a shop, buy a vehicle and ride out a few minutes later with no formal training, no licence requirements and no registration plate. The law only requires vehicles powered by combustion engines to carry number plates.
With millions of cyclists on the roads, that translates to millions of people who are completely unregistered, uninsured and, in the event of an accident, theoretically untraceable. This has been a bone of contention for years. How many times have you, as a motorist, shaken an angry fist at a cyclist and asked yourself why cyclists don’t have number plates so you can report them?
The arguments against number plates on bicycles are that it challenges the idea that you need a licence to travel under your own power. If we follow that line of reasoning, then wouldn’t pedestrians also require a ‘licence’ so that they do not wander into traffic or cross the road at non-designated areas? And how exactly would you police that? Driving a vehicle such as a car or motorcycle requires far more skill than riding a bicycle and there is undoubtedly a greater risk factor purely because of the greater mass involved. So consequently, motorists and motorcyclists undergo strict testing and licence controls so that they are identifiable in the event of an accident and deemed as competent enough to use a public road. And this is where the argument for number plates on bicycles comes in.
A degree of accountability
It’s very difficult to identify a cyclist in a road traffic situation. With no easily recognisable number plate, a cyclist can simply disappear into the traffic and you as a driver are left shaking your fist again. Even if you did want to report them for running a red light, for example, how would you go about it? Unless there is a police officer at the scene, the chances that an errant cyclist guilty of dangerous road-craft will go unpunished. But a number plate, even if that was a personalised number plate of some kind, would give both you as the witness (or victim) and the authorities the ability to trace the cyclist and hold them to account.
But once again, we’re back to that knotty problem of a person’s basic human right to travel under their own power. A bicycle is not a motorised vehicle. It does not have to pass an MOT and the rider does not have to have insurance to ride one. Perhaps this is the first area that could be addressed.
A basic form of insurance would at least give someone involved in an incident with a cyclist some form of redress. If a cyclist runs into your car and puts a dent in the wing, there is nothing you can do to claim any form of compensation back. With insurance, you could at least carry out that traditional roadside pastime and ‘exchange details’. It would also benefit the cyclist as well, giving them a degree of protection in the event of an accident.
But if you can’t identify the other party in the first place, what chance do you as a motorist have of finding recourse? Theoretically, none whatsoever. And as our roads become more crowded, it is this that is being put forward as one of the main arguments for number plates on bicycles. It would add accountability where there is currently none. Being identifiable by a number plate may make cyclists more inclined to pay closer attention to the rules of the road, as well as affording them a greater level of protection.
The question is – where would you fit them?