Political certainties are rare these days, but the zero chance that Grant Shapps’ ideas about mandatory insurance and registration plates for cyclists are ever enacted is about as close as you can get.
The transport secretary floated the idea of compulsory insurance for all bikes on the road and number plates for cyclists in an interview with the Daily Mail that made the front pagetoday: “How are you going to recognise the cyclist, do you need registration plates?” he asked. He then said the opposite in an interview with the Times: “I’m not attracted to the bureaucracy of registration plates. That would go too far.” His confused interventions would have been news to his junior ministers at the Department for Transport, too, whose longtime view has been that such schemes are a waste of time.
It is not just his own political staffers – more or less every official within the Department for Transport, and any expert outside it, would tell Shapps, if asked, that such plans have been mooted many times in numerous places, but have been very rarely implemented. When they have, it has never been with success. Switzerland had a try for a period. Argentina once tried, as have several US cities. But the only place to stick with the idea has been North Korea.
The argument for registering bikes can seem initially tempting. Cyclists, like cars, are road users, they can and sometimes do break laws, and they can also cause serious harm to others. Why should they be exempt from identification and enforcement? The reason is very simple: practically, it would be enormously difficult to enforce – and evidence shows it would deliver very little benefit.
First, the logistical hurdles of registering and identifying cyclists: a number plate needs to be big enough to be legible, which is tricky on its own. It would also only identify the bike itself, not the person on it. Some advocates have mooted the idea of rider-specific numbered tabards. But again, something big enough to be seen would be hugely impractical – sweaty to wear in summer, and impossible to get over a coat in the wet or cold.
And what about children? No one has seriously suggested that a 12-year-old cycling to school needs to face such administrative hurdles. But if the under-18s are exempt, would 16- and 17-year-olds need to start carrying ID to prove their age?
Even if some half-workable administrative fudge could be found, you run into the other glaring drawback of such schemes: there is very strong evidence that they bring no net benefit either to road safety or to overall national wellbeing. In fact, they do the opposite.
Identifying road users does not eliminate danger. The UK has an estimated one million uninsured drivers, according to the Motor Insurers’ Bureau, and about 70 people a day are either killed on the roads or experience potentially life-changing injuries.
Almost all road casualties are caused by cars. Focusing finite police resources on bikes would be to concentrate on a group that kills an average of two a year, against around the 1,700 lives lost each year in car accidents.
All you would get from these draconian measures is, most likely, fewer cyclists. Mandatory helmet laws in places such as Australia – a far less onerous administrative barrier – have been shown to suppress cyclist numbers. And if you get people switching from bikes to cars you get worse public health, more pollution, more congestion – and more road deaths.
So why did Shapps venture so far off piste? Probably because with discipline evaporating in the last weeks of Boris Johnson’s government, he felt he could. Before now, cycle policy had largely been imposed on Shapps by No 10, with Johnson giving his longtime adviser, Andrew Gilligan, the lead on the issue.
Shapps is by no means the only incumbent minister showing off in the hope he might land a ministerial role if a Truss government becomes a reality. Within his brief, cyclists are an easy target that will score well with members who support a more populist candidate such as Truss. Cyclists remain in the minority – despite a boom in numbers during the pandemic, only about 1% of all mileage on Britain’s roads is from cyclists. So cyclists are a conveniently small population for Shapps to take aim at.
Overall, the media treatment of cyclists has deteriorated recently. The Mail has routinely run scare stories about bikes for years – but the previously bike-positive Times declared in January that it now supported registration plates.
This media coverage matters. Some studies have linked anti-cycling media coverage to drivers being more aggressive towards cyclists on the roads. So while it’s tempting to write off Shapps’ comments – given how unlikely his ideas are to be implemented – the consequences for cyclists on roads could be much more serious.
Peter Walker is a political correspondent for the Guardian. He is the author of The Miracle Pill: Why A Sedentary World Is Getting It All Wrong