Why regulating cyclists is unnecessary and harmful

Why don't cyclists have compulsory licencing, training and insurance? Because it would be utterly pointless.

It doesn't really matter what you write about on the bike blog, at some point a reader will emerge with the same irascible complaint: why, oh why, they ask, should cyclists expect any sympathy – let alone special treatment – when they don't need a licence or insurance? What about number plates?

Sometimes, of course, this is mere provocation. But often it's serious. So I'm going to try and give a serious reply, however obvious this might all seem to fellow riders.

I'll start with a bit of clarification. Some of the bikes-need-regulating brigade mention a lack of road tax. I'm going to avoid that particular argumentative cul de sac, not least because we've cleared it up previously on the blog.

Secondly, I'll be working on the assumption that policy-making is a rational tool to create a better society, not a punishment for perceived irritants. This isn't always the case but it's a necessary premise: if you simply have a gut feeling that cyclists should be taught some sort of lesson and you're not interested in the evidence then there's no point even starting.

And finally: just because I'm against regulating cyclists doesn't mean I approve of reckless riding or believe it shouldn't be policed. I'd also encourage cyclists to be trained (Bikeability is the gold standard in the UK) and insured.

But I wouldn't seek to compel them. Why? The (very) short answer is that it would bring remarkably few benefits while causing a lot of harm.

Cycling and cyclists are good for society; good for everyone, in fact. You might not like our funny, Lycra-wearing ways, but it's an undeniable truth. If 50% of a hypothetical city's car drivers abandoned their vehicles overnight for bikes it would slash pollution and congestion (for the remaining drivers, too), also bringing less wear to the roads and better health for the new cyclists. It would additionally, at a stroke, dramatically cut the numbers of people killed or badly hurt on the roads, saving millions of pounds and – more importantly – reducing the number of lives lost or devastated through grief or grave injury.

Everyone's a winner. And what would be the best way of discouraging people from cycling? Making them leap through a host of bureaucratic hoops first.

Cycling's appeal is that it is gloriously simple and impulsive, a habit usually acquired in childhood. It's been shown time and again that even compulsory helmet wearing reduces cyclist numbers. Imagine what would happen if you introduced a registry of bikes and riders, which you'd need to make any licence and insurance scheme viable. Only the truly committed would trek to the test centre, fill in the forms for number plates and screw them onto the frame.

And would you make it obligatory for adults only? If not, teenagers would need to carry proof of ID with them every time they rode to the shops.
Bike use would plummet, and suddenly you have a deadlier, less healthy, more congested city.

But surely our pedestrians would be safe? Sadly not.

Recklessly ridden bikes can be an irritant, I'll agree with that. But they're not – and I really can't stress this enough – a notable hazard. Figures crunched by the CTC, the national cycling organisation, show that in the five years to 2009, two pedestrians were killed by cyclists on pavements. Sixty-five were killed – this is on pavements, remember – by cars, lorries vans and buses.

There's a reason why third party insurance costs hundreds of pounds if you drive a car while for cyclists it can be tacked on to the modest membership charge for a cycling organisation, or added to your home insurance as a freebie. We cyclists very, very rarely kill people. There are some very real problems on the UK's roads – six people dying a day on average, 60-plus more badly hurt – but we're really not it.

Ask us to take a test when we end or wreck lives roughly every 20 minutes. 'Til then, back off.

So over to you, the licencing advocates: do you have any decent arguments at all? Or is it – my suspicion in some cases – mere vengeful spite aimed at the slimmer, fitter, happier commuter disappearing into the distance while you sweat in a traffic jam?

From Guardian.co.uk