Mandatory Cycle Lanes: some progress

This article was published in 2005, in Newsletter 58.

For a number of years, Cambridge Cycling Campaign has had concerns over the lack of compliance by motorists of the regulations regarding cycle lanes delineated by a solid line. The Highway Code says in rule 119:

Cycle Lanes: … You MUST NOT drive or park in a cycle lane marked by a solid line during its times of operation.

The law, in the form of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, gives extremely few exceptions for this rule regarding Mandatory Cycle Lanes (MCLs).

Many drivers seem to enter Mandatory Cycle Lanes even when cyclists are present.
Image as described adjacent

Abuse by motorists of these lanes seriously degrades the provision for cyclists. MCLs are often used at just the locations where cyclists might be squeezed by motor vehicles, or obstructed by queuing traffic. Drivers illegally entering these lanes often do so without even checking for cyclists and, even where they do check first, cyclists are often travelling faster than the queues of vehicles and may be approaching in their worst blind spot. It is for these very reasons that MCLs are used at such locations to supposedly make life safer for cyclists.

I’d become disillusioned over the attitude of the police to these regulations, having met several officers who told me that driving in such MCLs was not an offence. I’ve talked to several cyclists who were learning to drive and were told by their driving instructors that there were many occasions when entering such lanes was acceptable. When I met some driving instructors in Cambridge, I took up this point and was surprised by their opinions. One even told me:

If a learner driver was following a car which stopped to turn right, and the only way past was to enter a mandatory cycle lane (which was clear of cyclists), if the learner failed to enter the lane, they would risk failing their test due to ‘Unnecessarily impeding following traffic’.

Another told me that:

As with Highway Code rule 108 regarding double white lines, you may cross the line to pass a stationary vehicle or one moving at less than 10 mph.

Initial contact with the Driving Standards Agency (DSA), which is the government body responsible for driving tests and the standards of driving instructors, gave inconclusive results, but I had further contact with driving instructors who insisted that my interpretation of the rule in the Highway Code was too strict and that entering MCLs in normal driving was acceptable.

Following an incident with a motor vehicle in such a lane – when, even with a witness, the police were extremely reluctant to take action – I took the problems to officers in the County Council. They supported my view, and hence were surprised when they extracted from the DSA the following quote:

Although it is technically illegal for a car to drive in a mandatory cycle lane this would be tolerated (and indeed expected) in a driving test if this was required for cars to make satisfactory progress. However, the onus is clearly on the driver to ensure that it is safe to carry out such a manoeuvre. If the driver encroaches on a mandatory cycle lane and in doing so, impedes the progress of a cyclist or has an adverse effect on the cyclist’s safety, the driver would fail his test.

The footpath and cycle lane are used by some drivers to make ‘satisfactory progress.’
Image as described adjacent

This seemed to support the view that in ‘normal’ driving it is ‘expected’ that a motorist may enter a mandatory lane to make ‘satisfactory progress’, and it is easy to see how the driving instructors and police get their liberal interpretation of the law.

Not being easily defeated, I asked the opinion of RoSPA, the CTC and the National Cycling Strategy Board regarding the above quote. Their response, and that of a barrister in the London Cycling Campaign, encouraged us to write to the Transport Minister responsible for the DSA for further clarification. That letter is available at:

We have since received replies from both the Department for Transport, which supported our view of the law, and one from the Assistant Chief Driving Examiner at the DSA giving a far more explicit version of the above ruling. The crucial sections of this letter state:

In the DSA publication Driving – The Essential Skills the advice given to drivers about cycle lanes states: ‘Don’t drive or park in a cycle lane marked by a solid white line during its hours of operation shown on the signs. If the cycle lane is marked by a broken line, don’t drive or park unless it is unavoidable.’ This advice will be given to anyone enquiring about the use of motor lanes by motor vehicles.


Driving in, or encroaching into cycle lanes on a driving test is not normally acceptable. However, because the driving test takes place in ‘live’ road and traffic conditions, it is not possible to say that it is never acceptable for a candidate on test to encroach into a cycle lane. The candidate may have to deal with unusual situations – perhaps with the aftermath of an accident, road works, vehicle breakdown or burst water main etc. It is in these situations that will possibly require vehicles to take an alternative course of action to keep traffic flowing, this may mean encroaching on a cycle lane. This does not mean that cyclists are to be ignored, or that drivers have priority. In these unusual situations the onus is on the driver to ensure their actions are safe and that cyclists, or any other road users, are not adversely affected.

This clearly shows that the current attitude of many police officers and driving instructors regarding MCLs is contrary to the law and the guidance of the Driving Standards Agency. Motor vehicles should not be entering them under ‘normal’ conditions, but only under conditions that are ‘unusual’.

We will be working with the authorities to ensure that those in responsible positions are made aware of this more exact DSA guidance, and that some methods of educating motor vehicle drivers on this issue are pursued.

We are, at the time of going to press, still awaiting a reply to a letter on this same issue written in early December to the Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Constabulary.

This is more than a local issue; it has national importance. There seems little point in having the new national guidance regarding mandatory cycle lanes, which is expected this year (revised Cycle Friendly Infrastructure and Local Transport Notes on cycling), without higher levels of compliance by motorists to existing regulations. We cannot get this until at the very least driving instructors teach learners correctly, and police on the beat understand the regulations.

Jim Chisholm