The rules of bike brakes
There are a few bike-related things that I’m planning to get around to some day. One of them is to cycle the length of Britain – preferably going the whole way on the national cycle network, if I can. Another is to learn proper bike maintenance – things like how to calibrate my gears properly. I’ll probably try to do these in reverse order, for safety’s sake and to avoid having to beg my girlfriend to pick me up somewhere in Scotland.
I also intend, in the not too distant future, to figure out what to do about the fact that I seem to have tightened my brake cables about as far as they will go. This is a bit more pressing, because the brakes are starting to feel loose again, and I can tug my brake levers disturbingly close to my handlebars. Bristol is quite a hilly place, so I could easily end up in a hedge (or, more worringly, the back of a car). I could also end up breaking the rules on bike brakes.
What brakes do you need on your bike?
As a general rule, if you ride a normal bike, you have to have two independent braking systems: one “which operates on the front wheel”, and one which operates on the back. (PCCUR r. 7(1)(b)(ii))
Alternatively, if you ride certain special kinds of bike, the rules can be different:
- By law, fixed-wheel bikes (i.e. bikes where “one or more of the wheels is incapable of rotating independently of the pedals”) have to have a front brake. (PCCUR r. 7(1)(b)(i))
- Tricycles which aren’t adapted for carrying goods still need to have two independent braking systems, but it’s acceptable to have both brakes operating on the single wheel (whether it’s at the back or the front). (PCCUR r. 9(2))
- Other bikes with more than two wheels (i.e. tricycles which are adapted for carrying goods, or bikes with more than three wheels): if there are two or more wheels on the front, the front brake has to operate on at least two of the front wheels. If there are multiple wheels at the back, the back brake has to operate on at least two of the back wheels. (PCCUR r. 7(1)(b)(ii))
- Children’s bikes: the two-brake rule only applies to bikes where the saddle is 635mm or more above the ground (when the bike is upright, the saddle is raised to the fullest extent compatible with safety and the tyres are fully inflated). A child’s bike where the saddle is lower than 635mm only needs one braking system (which can be on either wheel). (PCCUR r. 7(1)(a) and (b), (2))
- Penny farthings etc: where the bike is constructed so that “the pedals act on any wheel or on the axle of any wheel without the interposition of any gearing or chain”, none of the braking requirements apply – so it seems that they can be ridden without brakes. (PCCUR r. 9(1)(a))
This means that fixies with no front brake are technically illegal. So are adult dutch-style bikes which have ‘pedal backwards’ brakes on the rear wheel, but no separate brake on the front wheel.
As for recumbent bikes, the position is not entirely clear. As I’ve said, bikes are exempt from the requirement for two brakes (so it’s sufficient just to have one) if the highest part of the seating area of the saddle is below 635mm from the ground (which is generally the case for small children’s bikes). Presumably lots of recumbents will put the rider less than 635mm from the ground; but they also often have tall seat backs, which might stretch higher than 635mm above the ground. So it depends what “the seating area” means. There seems to be a good argument that the ‘chair back’ in a recumbent probably does count as part of the “seating area of the saddle”, so that you have to measure to the top of the chair – and if that’s more than 635mm above ground, you need brakes on both wheels. But it’s not entirely clear cut.
The rules for e-bikes (or “electrically assisted pedal cycles”) are different – I’ll look at e-bikes separately in the future.
The law also requires you to keep your brakes in efficient working order. (PCCUR r. 10(1))
There doesn’t seem to be any compulsory stopping distance or other standard test, so this is likely to be a matter of judgment. But your brakes will automatically fail the efficient working order test if they operate directly on any pneumatic tyre. So your brake pads mustn’t touch your tyres (unless you come within the exception for a bike with four or more wheels, none of which is bigger than 25cms). (PCCUR r. 10(2))
A constable in uniform has the power to test and inspect your bike to see if your brakes comply with the rules. The inspection can be carried out on a road, or on other premises if the bike has been involved in an accident (so long as the inspection is carried out within 48 hours of the accident, and the owner of the premises consents). (PCCUR r. 11)
As I’ve said before, if you’re cycling on the road, a constable in uniform can require you to stop. If you refuse to stop when he demands, you’ll commit an offence and can be given a fixed penalty notice. If you do stop, but refuse to cooperate with a bike inspection, there would seem to be a good chance of some kind of offence of obstruction. (RTA s. 163(2), (3); RTOA ss. 51, 52, 54, Sch 3)
Breaking the rules
If you ride your bike on a road and it doesn’t have the necessary brakes, or it does have the brakes but they’re not in efficient working order, you’ll commit an offence. It doesn’t matter whether you know about the problem with your brakes – you’ll be guilty just by riding on the road. (PCCUR rr. 6, 10; RTOA s. 91; James v Smee  1 QB 78, 90).
It’s also an offence to “cause or permit” someone to ride a bike on the road when it doesn’t have the necessary brakes, or the brakes aren’t in good order. So if you lend your bike to someone else, and they are caught riding it on the road without proper brakes, you could commit this offence – or (possibly) if you permit your child to ride their bike on the road without proper brakes. But if you’re not the person doing the riding, you will probably only commit this offence if you knew about the problem with the brakes (or “shut your eyes to the obvious”). (James v Smee, above, 91)
You can’t be given a fixed penalty notice for not having proper brakes. So the police can only impose a penalty if they prosecute you, in which case the maximum fine is £1000.
Prosecutions are presumably more hassle for the police than handing out FPNs, and this may make it less likely that they’d bother to pursue you. I have read suggestions that the rules on brakes have been enforced (including the rule about permitting a child to ride without proper brakes), although I’ve never seen a policeman carry out a brakes inspection. It’s probably the kind of thing where you can expect a warning (if you’re inspected, or for example if a policeman sees you unable to stop) – unless of course someone is hurt.
Finally, in some circumstances it’s an offence to sell a bike which doesn’t have the necessary brakes. There are also consumer protection rules in this context, and you can be sued for damages. I’ll cover this in more detail in weeks to come. (PCCUR r. 12; RTA s. 81(6))
Photo by Simon Clayson from here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/claypole/2889907485/