If my phone rings while I’m cycling, normally I won’t answer. I’m basically concerned for my safety – I’m not sure I could co-ordinate riding along and digging my phone out of my pocket at the same time. Unfortunately some callers seem to have an uncanny knack of knowing when I’m on my bike, and will keep phoning until I stop. I think the record so far is five calls before I finally gave up and pulled over. If you see someone riding along with a Vampire Weekend ringtone playing on repeat – that’s me.
People disagree on whether talking on your mobile while cycling is a good idea. Jon Snow, the face of Channel 4 news and president of the national cyclists’ organisation the CTC, has said he thinks dial-and-riding should be banned. In the opposing camp is the London mayor, Boris Johnson, who has written in support of cyclists’ freedom to make phone calls. The disagreement reflects an ambiguity in the road rules which apply to cyclists. Legislation was introduced in 2003 to ban driving while using a hand-held mobile, but it applies only to motor vehicles, so doesn’t cover bicycles. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that cyclists are free to phone. Sergeant Antony Wolfson, a member of the City of London police cycle patrol team who tweets about his work as @CityCycleCop, says:
“There is no specific offence for talking on a mobile phone while cycling. However, you could be prosecuted for careless or inconsiderate cycling contrary to section 29 of the Road Traffic Act 1988.”
So if you’re caught using your mobile while riding your bike, you could be accused of either careless or inconsiderate cycling. These offences are essentially the same, and depend on whether you’re riding with the degree of care to be expected of a reasonable and competent cyclist. Both carry a maximum fine of £1,000.
What are the chances of finding yourself in legal trouble if you phone while riding? The first question is whether the police are even likely to pull you over. Sergeant Wolfson says that he’s more inclined to stop someone if he thinks they are “likely to harm themselves or anyone else”. Different police forces will take different approaches to this, but it will probably depend at least in part on whether you appear to be in control.
If you are pulled over, you can probably expect at least a talking to – “words of advice” as Sergeant Wolfson kindly calls them. But the police don’t have the power to issue fixed penalty notices for careless or inconsiderate cycling, so if they want to impose a fine, they have to bring a prosecution in court.
The courts have quite a nuanced approach when judging offences like these. They will take into account various factors such as what the traffic conditions were like, how much control you had over your bike and whether you obeyed the Highway Code (which says nothing specifically about phoning while cycling). Generally the busier the road, and the more difficulty you would have had reacting to the unexpected, the more likely you might be found to have cycled carelessly.
So far there don’t seem to have been many successful prosecutions for careless cycling based on using a mobile. Sergeant Wolfson couldn’t recall a case where the City police had brought a prosecution for this. Of course if you injure someone a prosecution is much more likely, but probably under different legal provisions.
What do bike blog readers think? Do you talk on your phone while cycling, and should it be illegal?
Jorren Knibbe is a barrister and writes a blog on cycle law. This article is for general information only, and is not intended as legal advice.