Compulsory insurance for cyclists: Why not?

In the UK, if you ride a bike, write about bikes or work with bikes, there are certain thorny debates that crop up repeatedly: helmets, insurance, licensing, red-light-jumping and road tax are the usual favourites for discussion with journalists, motorists or fellow riders.

This morning was the turn of insurance. Oddly prompted by government proposals around compulsory insurance for dog owners, an exchange of views broke out on Twitter, debating the pros and cons of mandating third party insurance for cyclists. Such a move would ensure that in the event of a cyclist being at fault in an accident, compensation could be made available to injured parties. There seemed to be some firmly held, and sometimes opposing, views on the subject among @carltonreid, @velofello, @markbikeslondon, @FatManonaBike, @John_the_Monkey, @cyclepod1, @breadedcod and me, @CliveAndrews.

On the face of things, this looks like a reasonable idea. An equitable idea. Motorists are required to have third party insurance, so by taking responsibility in the same way, cyclists can be seen as equal to their four-wheeled contemporaries.

Will & Kate. London Junction.But there is a huge flaw in the idea of compulsory insurance for cyclists:

Of those who believe cycling to be a good thing for our society and our environment, most would like to see greater numbers taking to two wheels. With this in mind, we owe it to ourselves to ensure cycling remains as approachable, as accessible and as ‘normal’ as possible.

Committed cyclists may think nothing of investing a few quid in third party insurance. Many of us, through membership of cycling organisations, already hold insurance, so a compulsion to obtain third party cover will be no obstacle to our riding.

But what of those millions of people on the brink of deciding whether or not they should drive a little less and cycle a little more, and who would never define themselves as ‘cyclists’?

In a system with compulsory insurance for cyclists, the only people riding bikes would be those who take the deliberate decision to label themselves as cyclists by making the effort to obtain insurance. Do we want a small number of committed, legally paid-up cyclists feeling smugly secure in their legal parity with motorists, or do we want cycling to be accepted as the easy, affordable hassle-free way for everyone to get around?

We are all road users, making our own decisions about which vehicle to take to school, work or to the shops. If we want more people to use two wheels for short journeys we should not do anything to take cycling further out of the hands of the average citizen and into the hands of people who have chosen to commit to cycling as an officially documented lifestyle choice.

Some arguments on the politics of road use fall into the trap of adopting an ‘us and them’ mentality. We are the cyclists. They are the drivers. This ill-advised idea has a similar effect: We are the cyclists. They are are the non-cyclists. And if they want to join our club they will need an official piece of paper to show they are serious.

A very bad idea.

(Disclosure: When I wrote this blog post, I worked for CTC, the national cyclists’ organisation, but this post was unconnected with my work role)

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19 Responses to Compulsory insurance for cyclists: Why not?

  1. I’m against the idea (as I said on Twitter), but i do have insurance, by virtue of being a member of CTC. (In fact I probably have it twice over as a member of a bike user group affiliated to CTC – hmm.).

    I’ve not had the opportunity to use it, as motorists insist on crashing into me, rather than vice versa.

  2. Mark says:

    What about an insurance scheme that offers 3rd party cover regardless of your mode of transport? That way if I regardless of if I run, ride or drive into someone they are covered 🙂

  3. Jim says:

    I think the idea of insurance, as clive points out in the first half of his blog, is a good thing, in that achieving parity with motorists would play a part in winning hearts and minds, and would add to the perceived legitimacy of cyclists on the road (we are legitimate already, of course, but this would at least help to extend the olive branch to people using other modes of transport)

    That said, I also agree that making potential cyclists jump through another hoop is a bad thing. The only solution I could think of would be attach the cost of insurance to the cost of a bike. Though that is fraught with problems too.

    Seems the main problem with insurance is how do you police it? And where do you stop? Skateboards? roller boots?Prams?

    The overall problem, I think, with insurance is that it could (would) very quickly descend into farce, and then everyone would flout the rules, making motorists even more angry than they were to begin with.

  4. Jim says:

    If you read my ramble you be forgiven for thinking it’s quite contradictory – what I’m saying is that the IDEA of insurance for cyclists is good, but in practice, it ain’t gonna cut it. A bit like the Girvin Flexstem.

  5. I don’t think the idea of insurance is a good one, at all, save as a sop to the sort of idiot that hates you because you’re on a bicycle anyway.

    Pedestrians. rollerbladers, cyclists – they don’t cause the damage, death and injury that motor traffic does, and so it is the latter that requires driver competency to be tested, risk to others to be insured, and vehicles to be licensed.

    I don’t intend this to be anti-car (I own one myself) just a statement of fact. Looking at the road users who are overwhelmingly at risk from motor traffic to insure the risk they pose to others is a missing of the point so astonishing as to be laughable, at least in a road safety context.

    I suspect it springs from the continued refusal of many to address road safety from the point of view of making drivers responsible for their actions.

  6. sas says:

    Does anyone actually know how much uninsured cyclists (and pedestrians, dog walkers, snowball throwers) are costing the nation? And is it safe to assume that compulsory 3rd party insurance would only have an effect in the cases where the offender would otherwise be unable to pay? e.g. my (very limited) understanding is that to claim on someone’s 3rd party insurance I’d need to launch a civil claim via the insurance co, and presumably I could just as well claim against the offender directly if they had the money?

  7. Jim says:

    Thing is, John, accidents happen. I’m not above admitting that potentially a mistake on my part, whether I’m driving or riding or whatever, could cause someone harm, and that person would have a right to seek recompense for my actions.

    Good drivers are rewarded by having cheaper premiums, and cyclists could have nominal premiums to begin with, given the amount of accidents cyclists are responsible for.

    However, I just don’t think it would work as it would be ignored by a huge proportion of people who use bikes, as it already is by drivers (1 in 20 motorists not insured in the UK), which, as clive pointed out, would further alienate cyclists from their fellow road users. The principle of insurance is a good one. In practice, it just ain’t gonna work.

    There was some discussion on this at work the other day, and the suggestion came up that to make drivers more responsible for their actions it might be a good idea to replace airbags with a metal spike, putting some of the consequence back on the driver for acting irresponsibly. Though I suspect that idea won’t go far either.

  8. Jim says:

    I like Marks idea BTW.

  9. Kim says:

    Are the insurance companies rich enough all really? If there was a large amount of harm being caused by cyclist then there would be some sense in it but there is not. So much of “road safety” ideology does – it inverts reality into seeing cycling and walking as the dangerous modes.

  10. szegerely says:

    Cyclists can ride as soon as they are able, my son managed at the age of three and was on the roads at 5, would he need it?
    The old boy, must be knocking on 80 a few doors away cycles to the shop at the end of the road for a paper every day, would he?
    Anyway, point is cycling is a right, like walking and horse riding.
    You can’t prevent someone from doing something they have a right to do, so if you whipped up an insurance scheme you are taking away my right. Ain’t ever going to happen.

  11. Mark says:

    Also how exactly is this whole insurance for cyclist scheme going to be administered? From the brief bits I’ve caught about the dog insurance each dog would need to be micro-chipped so I assume the insurance would be tied to a dog.
    If we are expecting cyclists to insure themselves are we going to then have ID on bikes? Surely this is then going to lead to demands from drivers (as there have already been) for cyclist to carry ID plates so they can be held accountable for their actions.

    Personally I’ve got no problem with the idea of cyclist having insurance if they want it but as has been mentioned I don’t think compulsory insurance is going to do anything to promote cycling.

  12. Dave M says:

    People labour under the misapprehension that if you don’t have insurance, you don’t have to pay. Motorists should be reassured that cyclists are already liable for the full cost of any injury they cause to third parties – they’d still have to sue to claim money even if we were insured.

    Insurance simply distributes the cost of claims across everybody, rather than forcing the individual to pay up when they get it wrong.

    While this is not inherently a bad thing (see car insurance), the damage that would be caused by making it a statutory requirement for cyclists can hardly be underestimated.

    One observation which is so far missing from this debate is the massive power that it would give insurance companies to control how people ride, what they ride, and what they wear.

    At the moment bike insurance is essentially flat rate, partly because the number of claims are so tiny, but also because insurance companies know that an optional product which, say, cost £50 pa extra if you want to wear a non-luminous jacket, would simply be ignored.

    If insurance is compulsory, we would rapidly see differentiation in cycling insurance just as we do elsewhere. Bareheaded? Extra £xxx. Wear lycra? Extra £xxx (or depending on how the risks pan out, maybe £xxx less!)

    What if a condition of your policy is that you must use a cycle lane if one is present?

    It’s a terrible idea, and I think if it did move forwards, a poll-tax style refusal to comply would be needed.

  13. Nicola says:

    A drunken cyclist ran into the side of my car, he was not breathalised but my partner was who was driving at the time. He admitted fault at the time but later decided to blame us it took our insurance months to throw it out. He then went to the MIB and told them a third party car caused him to swerve into me. I have been told that I now have no hope of claiming any money for the repair of my car (over £1000) and the insurance premium added while all this is happening. I have to pay for his mistake and if he was insured that wouldnt be the case. I appreciate that RTA accidents are usually the car’s fault but why when a cyclist causes and accident can they just walk away free from the responsibility and we have to suffer?!

  14. John the Monkey says:

    Nicola, I’m not sure how his having insurance would help – if I’m reading you correctly, he lied to the MIB after initially admitting fault, and that’s why they aren’t paying. In a case where he was insured, wouldn’t the same thing happen?

  15. James says:

    Insurance or not as long as a cyclist that causes damage pays for it no problem, I had my vehicle damaged today by a cyclist and that’s what prompted me to look if there was such a thing. Tomorrow I will get an estimate for repair and should the cyclist refuse to pay I will sue them, they have signed a declaration of fault and I have photographic evidence. People insure their mobile phones for themselves so they should insure for third party damage if they cause it through riding their bike, why should the innocent party be left out of pocket and be inconvenienced.Compulsory insurance for cyclists is a MUST!

  16. Hi James. Thanks for commenting.

    Would it be fair to say there’s some contradiction in your remarks? From “Insurance or not as long as a cyclist that causes damage pays for it no problem” to “Compulsory insurance for cyclists is a MUST!”.

    Your situation sounds unfortunate, but as you say, the other party is liable and you are dealing with the process of receiving recompense for the damage. I think you make a strong case for liability and enforced responsibility, but that is not the same thing as a case for compulsory insurance.

    For the reasons I described in my post, there would be unintended consequences of making insurance compulsory – damaging the accessibility of cycling and turning it from a normal activity into something exclusively for committed enthusiasts. This is counter to the idea of increasing cycling in the UK. And for what gain?

    Insurance is compulsory for cars, yet many hundreds of thousands of uninsured drivers are on the road, causing damage, death and expense to others. I don’t see how compulsory insurance for cyclists would be any more failsafe, how it would alter the liability of those who cause damage, and I can’t ignore the huge harm it would do to the freedom of us all to use cycling as a normal way of getting around.


  17. andrewz says:

    Have nepthews and necies that ride bikes but they be walking if this comes in, me i’d ignore it, what next tax, mot, licence, test. and then the same for walkers, skate boarders etc. what a coutry i despise more and more, im local in cornwall by the way.

  18. Dave H says:

    Taking this to its logical conclusion you would need third party insurance just to walk along the street. But hang on a minute, the law states that you have to have third party insurance in a car for a very good reason. The damage and injuries that can be caused by a car going out of control can be substantial, and often way beyond the ability of a driver or keeper to pay the bills, so it makes great sense to have a law requiring the keeper (or driver) to have cover for third party liability. If the keeper/driver does not have insurance they remain liable and you could still make a civil claim for reparation/redress, however claiming from a liable party who has no resources will not be totally successful – however the MIB or Court may secure a claim for what resources the liable party has available.

    Now a cyclist crashing does far less damage than a motor vehicle – barely more than a pedestrian banging in to say a glazed door with a ladder or other object they are carrying. Most adults have some form of household insurance, and such policies include third party liability cover to varying levels – most will cover minors riding bikes, playing ball games (and hitting greenhouses!) etc some may even include cover for adult members of the household riding bikes – but like car insurance, will exclude racing and other competitive cycling.

    So there is no need for any change of law – as civil remedy remains as an option for any incident whether a driver or rider or pedestrian is liable. There is the prudent action for a regular cyclist to take out insurance to cover that third party liability, and with most policies (many inclusive in the membership of a cycling organisation) this includes legal representation to defend or pursue a claim. The latter is invaluable in that the cycling organisations have retained claims advisers, and you get 100% of any successful claim, generally more quickly, than using an ‘ambulance chaser’ for a no win no fee deal.

    It does prompt me to ask for an opinion on whether there is a place for a universal travel insurance policy supplement to your household policy. This would be for those occasions when you might end up missing the last train North on a Saturday night and face a 14 hour wait (yes a 14 hour wait for the next train), or the option of a taxi, hiring a car, or making a last minute booking on a coach or early morning flight, would save the day. Natonal Express and Megabus offer a form of this policy for £1/trip, but no rail ioperator has thought to suggest this for advance purchase tickets – for just £1 extra, if you miss that train the insurance covers the cost of the replacement ticket, or just take out an annual policy for all your travel.

  19. colin says:

    Well….A bike ran into me as I was crossing a road. I got two cracked ribs and a fractured Femur (which is no joke). There was NOONE I could turn to for compensation, and had to sue the guy on the bike personally. It turned out he had no cash, so it was pointless persuing him. I can ASSURE everyone that Third Party Insurance for cyclists is a must regardless of the semantics of “in my club” etc.
    They should be legally required to obey the Highway Code and have Insurance like any other road vehicle.

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