Tongue-Twisters #3

Is a cycle a vehicle?

To continue with the road users theme and the joys of the language used in the Road Traffic Act, it is time to consider the status of the cyclist.

What is a “cyclist”? The 1961 Act defines a “pedal bicycle” as a “pedal cycle” (both bi- and tri-, and just to be clear, that refers to the number of wheels, rather than your sexual orientation) “which is intended or adapted for propulsion solely by the physical exertions of a person or persons seated thereon”, and a “pedal cyclist” is defined as a person “driving a pedal cycle”, which is confirmation that a cyclist is a “driver” for the purpose of the Act.

Once again, for purposes of distinction and clarification, a riding cyclist is a driver of a bicycle or tricycle. Monocycles belong in a circus, and have no place on our roads or pavements, in the eyes of the Act at least. The cycle must be propelled by leg-power, rather than by any mechanical or electrical means. This raises the obvious question about the cyclist with a mechanical prosthetic leg, (irrespective of whether he shot his girlfriend through the toilet door). In other words, does the Act apply to the Special Olympics? But I digress, back to the issue at hand.

When a cycle is propelled by mechanical or electrical means, one would assume it would become a “motorcycle”, in the popular sense of the word, as similarly, the motorcycle is not distinctly defined in the Act, but would presumably fall under the broad auspices of the “mechanically propelled vehicle” discussed in a previous blog (see   If the cyclist disembarked from the pedal cycle and pushed it, he or she would become a pedestrian, unless perhaps if there was some shopping in an attached basket, or a lazy person catching a free ride on the saddle of the pushed cycle (see the previous blog and the discussion on pedestrian-controlled vehicles). If the pedal cyclist did attach a motor or engine (fuel- or electric-powered), God forbid that they should try and push such a beast, as they might find themselves the driver of a pedestrian-controlled mechanically propelled vehicle, but without the corresponding status of the pedestrian, thereby trespassing on both pavement and road alike. In such a case even the shopping could not save them, and the lazy passenger would be an accessory after the fact.

What is clear is that a cyclist, whilst actually riding (read “driving”) the pedal cycle with the corresponding physical exertion, is never a pedestrian, and as a driver is rather more akin to the status of the motorist, albeit without a motor, and accordingly has the rights and duties of a motorist, who is properly described as the driver of a mechanically propelled vehicle.

The status of the motorist determines that they are governed by a plethora of legislation, including a number of Road Traffic Acts, and numerous secondary legislations enabled by the aforementioned statutes. One of the obvious restraints imposed on these drivers of mechanically propelled vehicles is that they are not allowed to drive on the pavement nor are they allowed to proceed through a red traffic light or drive on the wrong side of the road.

If the status of the cyclist, as a driver of a vehicle, is much closer to the status of the motorist than the pedestrian, how is it that the cyclist is not trammelled by similar restraints?

Pedestrians cannot claim the sanctity or protection of the pavement when it is invaded by the cyclist and they are clipped from behind by a hazing handlebar or a pugnacious pedal, or have their dignity, and perhaps subsequently their pelvis, shattered by a mechanically propelled vehicle, as they are forced to step out into the road to avoid the flying cyclist on the pavement.

Motorists are similarly not immune to the duplicitous status of the cyclist. Who has not had to brake sharply to avoid the cyclist going through the red light when yours is green, or riding across the zebra-crossing rather than walking, or cutting across your bows just before entering the roundabout, vaguely waving an arm in the air, usually after rather than before the offending manoeuvre? If these things were done by drivers of mechanically propelled vehicles, they would constitute dangerous driving at the least, so why are cyclists not prosecuted with the vehemence seemingly reserved for motorists?

Whatever tongue twisters may emerge from the governing legislation, it is clear that cyclists are not pedestrians, and therefore are not allowed to drive on the pavement, nor are they allowed to ride through the red traffic light (the protection of the Green Man extends only to pedestrians, including wheelchair users and shoppers) nor are they allowed to drive on the right-hand side of the road into the path of oncoming mechanically propelled vehicles.

At the moment it would seem that the apparently indeterminate status of the cyclist has not only flummoxed the law enforcement official, but has bestowed a cloak of invisibility on their person, undetectable by human or mechanical means alike.

Perhaps surprisingly, this invisibility has not received statutory blessing. In fact, the contrary is true. The current legislation stipulates that the Garda Síochána are obliged to acknowledge the existence of cyclists. Section 80 of the Road Traffic Act of 2010 substitutes s. 108 of the 1961 Act, and which, in a nutshell, allows a Garda to confiscate a person’s cycle if they refuse to supply their name and address where the Garda suspects that cyclist of having committed any crime. If one assumes that driving through a red traffic light, driving on the wrong side of the road, and perhaps even driving on a pavement, is a crime; where is the warehouse full of confiscated bicycles and tricycles, or the reams of names and addresses of people who were stopped in the midst of their crime? There is legislation in place. Now all that is needed is for law-enforcement officials to enforce the law, but perhaps they, like many others, struggle to understand the law in the first place.

About Neil van Dokkum

Neil van Dokkum (B. SocSc; LLB; LLM; PGC Con.Lit) Neil is a law lecturer and has been so since arriving in Ireland from South Africa in 2002. Prior to that Neil worked in a leading firm of solicitors from 1987-1992, before being admitted as an Advocate of the Supreme Court of South Africa (a barrister) in 1992. He published three books in South Africa on employment law and unfair dismissal, as well as being published in numerous national and international peer-reviewed journals. Neil currently specialises in employment law, medical negligence law, family law and child protection law. He dabbles in EU law (procurement and energy). Neil retired from full-time practice in 2002 to take up a lecturing post. He has published three books since then, “Nursing Law for Irish Students (2005); “Evidence” (2007); and “Nursing Law for Students in Ireland” (2011). His current interest is the area of disability as a politico-economic construct. Neil is very happily married to Fiona, and they have two sons, Rory and Ian.
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