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Should cyclists be made to display number plates?

October, 21 2014


Cyclists get a lot of hate from motorists in Britain and Sussex Police Commissioner, Katy Bourne, has added fuel to the fire by suggesting that cyclists should be made to display number plates. She has been met with a lot of opposition though, with many people opposed to the idea. National Numbers addresses the entire issue, taking into account the positives and negatives of the idea and how it could be enforced.

Whether you think it is right or wrong, we would all agree that cyclists get a lot of hate from motorists in Britain. I won’t go into where I personally stand on the issue because weighing up the reasons why and why not would take an entire blog post in itself! What I would like to talk about is this recent idea that is being floated around – should cyclists display number plates?

Sussex Police Commissioner, Katy Bourne, brought the idea into relevance a couple of weeks ago, saying it would make prosecution of cyclists who disregard road laws. Bourne has road safety at heart, highlighting negligent cyclists who ride through red lights and put other road users in danger. She isn't the first with these views, I remember a few years ago Ken Livingston, Mayor of London at the time, put forward the same idea.


Speaking at a public meeting, Bourne said: 'I would like to see cyclists wear some form of identification like cars have … This way when they go through traffic lights, you can actually identify them and then you can prosecute them for breaking the law.'

Katy Bourne also made it clear she wanted equal punishment for cyclists and motorists who break the same laws. In her opinion this would make life much easier, and law enforcement easier. She would agree that this is more a case of the few spoiling it for the many, but nevertheless if a car has to be identified regardless she sees no reason why a bicycle shouldn't have to either.

Obviously she has her opponents on this matter. The Telegraph’s Andrew Critchlow said the idea was “impossible to enforce” in his blog on the matter, and Simon Usborn of The Independent called it an “unworkable policy”. What Katy Bourne has implied about the competency of cyclists in general has also inspired heated opposition, as you would expect.

The point is that the idea, in general, is impractical. When you say cyclists should have number plates in a literal sense one would wonder how you would go about displaying them. Your average car number plate is rectangular and clunky, very awkward for the frame of the bicycle. Plates more akin to the smaller square ones motorbikes display are still a problem because there is simply nowhere to put them.

You are left with a very big decision about whether you would make a completely new design bicycles can display – and I have no idea what that would be – or you simply ban certain bikes from the road if they cannot fit a number plate, which right now is most. Another problem would be required modification to allow a place for the number plate – who will be paying for that? The cyclist?

I'm sure there are ways around this – Number plates printed on cycling jerseys? Number plates on helmets? Number plates on the side of the bicycle? One way or another it would be very hard to solve the problem of identifying the cyclist as all of these would, in someway, obscure the actual mark.

cycle number plates

The other problem is where exactly are this registration numbers coming from? For vehicles these are issued by the DVLA, and it is based on location and date of first issue, which alone is practically unenforceable. How would one go about assigning an age to a bicycle? Or would the DVLA create a new department specifically so cyclists can register their bikes for the first time? Would they then sideline a specific combination of registration marks like they do with exported vehicles – CY15 ABC for example?

We’ve explained how number plate formats work in the past, but even if we can work it out that is still a huge strain on the DVLA. By estimation there is about 3.5million regular cyclists in the country (based on recent sales and survey statistics), and 43% of the country have access to a cycle as well – all presumably would need to be registered. That is a lot of unique number plates the DVLA would have to give out, presumably for free.

Not to mention how you would go about enforcing which bicycles are road worthy or not. At what point would a recreational bike become a road bike? There are way too many variables that would make this entirely impossible, unless you do something over-drastic like outright banning certain types of bicycles from the road completely, and that is not something people would be enthused about.

It is hard to disagree with Katy Bourne’s original sentiments – it should be as easy to report a cyclist who has broken the law as it is for a dangerous driver, if just for the continued safety of road users, but there is no magic bullet for this problem. The world of vehicle registrations is complicated and the last thing that needs to be done is to rush into it without a plan, and a plan itself would take years to iron out.

I echo statements made by others: Rather than instigate a War of the Roads between cyclists and motorists we should be more focused on building a respectful relationship between the two and encourage the education of proper road use. That is the best, and so far only practical, solution to help protect both drivers and cyclists alike, as well as pedestrians.

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