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The rules of bike brakes

4 May 2011

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.

Brake maintenance

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 [1955] 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:

  1. 4 May 2011 13:03

    On the cycling the length of Britain, you might be interested in

  2. Barry permalink
    4 May 2011 14:17

    I see so many kids riding around on BMX’s where they’ve taken the front+rear brakes off. I’ve no idea why they think this is a good idea.

    Is it wrong that I hope for Darwinism to eradicate this new ‘trend’? 😉

    • Tadhg permalink
      16 May 2011 02:18

      It’s pretty simple really.
      BMXs are intended for park or trail riding which is a reasonably controlled environment and speeds are typically lower. If for whatever reason an emergency stop is neccessary, the bike can easily be dismounted. It’s also pretty easy to control speed by pressing ones foot on the rear tyre and resting it on the seatstays.
      There’s no need for brakes in such circumstances and they only add unessecary weight, cost, complexity and cables.

      There is also of course the secondary possibility that the riders you’ve seen are mere trendwh*res.

      I’m not for one minute suggesting that such BMXs are road-legal or that they should be ridden amongst traffic.

  3. 4 May 2011 19:11

    You’ve failed to consider unicycles. I’d assume, as fixed wheel, no brakes required. (Actually I do recall looking this up once when I was regularly riding one but it was very hard to establish which rules applied to unicycles and which didn’t.)

    • 5 May 2011 11:47

      hi trevor

      good point – i’d actually never considered how the road rules deal with unicycles. i’ve done a quick search and found that the Road Traffic Act 1988 doesn’t apply to them (see s. 192(1)).

      since the braking rules now have effect as though they were made under the 1988 Act (s. 81(1)), it seems to me that the braking rules can’t apply to unicycles either.

      this doesn’t necessarily mean that unicycles are entirely exempt from road traffic law though, since some of the rules derive from other Acts. I’ll have to consider this for a future post!

  4. 4 May 2011 20:33

    Good post. And an interesting though on recumbents. Due to their shape and position of the ride and weight distribution a recumbent can stop sooooo much quicker than any other bike. Even with only a front brake they will out perform nearly all bikes.

    The current hipster culture is a big problem. Having brakes seems to be uncool and people are taking them off and just riding fixed. Or they are buying track frames and riding them on the road, which i certainly wouldn’t want to do!

    • 5 May 2011 11:33

      hi gaz

      researching this post has actually made me want to try out a recumbent – sounds great!

  5. 4 May 2011 23:52

    Must admit that all the commercial recumbents I’ve seen have wanted for nothing in the braking dept’ – especially tadpole trikes.

    Whilst the Law seems to cover most styles of bicycle, it is interesting that efficiency of design isn’t considered.

    • 5 May 2011 11:32

      hi ian

      when it comes to efficiency of brakes, i remember reading somewhere about police forces in other countries testing to make sure cyclists could stop within a certain distance – but that’s an effectiveness test, and not about design.

      as far as i’m aware, there are no British Standards applying to the design of brakes for normal bikes – but it’s different for e-bikes.

  6. MikeC permalink
    5 May 2011 12:39

    Brake performance, and lever dimensions, strength, etc are covered in British Standards.

    BS 6102-1:1992 – includes a performance test for adult bicycles (superseded by EN 14764, 14765, 14766)

    BS EN 14764:2005 – includes a performance test for “City and trekking bicycles”

    BS EN 14765:2005 – includes a performance test for “Bicycles for young children”

    BS EN 14766:2005 – includes a performance test for “mountain-bicycles”

    BS EN 14781:2005 – includes a performance test for “racing bicycles”

    They seem to be pretty comprehensive, taking several pages each, but are effectiveness tests. Just as well really, because specifications about design would leave us with whatever technology was available at the time the standard was written. Modern “Vee” brakes are simple and effective, but would probably not be included in design standards.

    • 5 May 2011 14:43

      well there we are! thanks mike

      it sounds like BS 6102-1:1992 is probably an updated version of the standard which e-bike brakes have to conform to (which is BS 6102-1:1981 – see PCCUR rr. 3(1)(d) and 4(b)(i)).

      as far as I’m aware, there is no legislation requiring brakes on normal (i.e. non-electric) bikes to comply with any of the other standards.

  7. MikeC permalink
    5 May 2011 20:34

    There’s not much difference between the 1981 (as amended) and 1992 versions of BS6102/1, and the EN standards are heavily based on BS6102/1.

    An example of the difficulties of mandating design or technology is pedals. BS6102 admits the existence of pedals with toe-clips but all without toeclips must have “tread surfaces on the top and bottom surfaces of the pedal”. This rules out “clipless” of course. Luckily the EN series do recognise “shoe-retention devices” which are then exempt from the tread requirement.

    Some (many?) libraries have a licence from BSI to access British Standards from library computers, and Cambridgeshire (for one) allows access from home computers using your library card. Sadly ISO standards are not available in the same way AFAICT.

  8. Chris permalink
    11 May 2011 14:27

    I heard once that the law says the left brake must operate on the back wheel, so you have greater control when signalling to turn right. Is that true?

    • 11 May 2011 15:53

      Hi Chris

      As far as I’m aware, there’s no rule requiring your bike to be set up that way in order for it to be used on the road. But there are rules about the alignment of brakes which apply to the sale of new bikes, which I’ll cover in future weeks.


  1. Buying and selling bikes, part 1 – basic kit requirements « UK Cycle Rules – information on cycling law in England and Wales
  2. Buying and selling bikes, part 2 – kit requirements for new bikes « UK Cycle Rules – information on cycling law in England and Wales

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