This article is written by Vismay G.R.N, student pursuing B.A.LL.B (Hons.) from the National University of Advanced Legal Studies (NUALS), India.
The COVID–19 pandemic has been the cause of some of the most difficult challenges that mankind has had to face in recent years. It is the case that almost all of us either know someone who has faced health complications due to the disease or know of someone whose dear ones have. For those of us who have managed to stay clear of the dreaded virus, another set of challenges persists.
Many nations have mandated strict lockdowns in order to break the chain of transmission of the virus. As a result, workplaces, schools, public parks, gyms, etc. have been closed for months on end. This has proven to be a nightmare for those persons in society who prioritise keeping fit and healthy. For those who have to get to work, the very thought of using public transport has been anxiety inducing.
These circumstances have however proven to be fertile soil for the rise of the humble bicycle. The bicycle offers a solution to those who would want to step out for exercise or fresh air after spending days locked down in their homes. It is also an eco – friendly and socially distanced alternative to those who have to still get from one point to the other, despite the pandemic.
Despite the increased manufacture and use of bicycles in the country, there seems to be no clarity on the road rules that cyclists ought to follow. There is also uncertainty on several other aspects such as riding on footpaths and stopping at traffic signals. In addition to this, the question pertaining to the wearing of helmets and equipping the cycle/ rider with other safety equipment (reflective wear, light reflectors, front and rear lights, etc), are unanswered.
In this article, an attempt is made to address these questions and lift the legal haze that surrounds cycling in India. The practice in other jurisdictions is analysed and suggestions are made which ought to be incorporated into the legal framework in order to serve the interests of all concerned.
Boom in bicycle manufacturing and use in India
According to the All-India Cycle Manufacturers Association (AICMA), a body that is comprised of members that account for 85% of the manufacturing of bicycles in India, there has been an increase in the sale of bicycles in India by almost 200%. The AICMA reported that between the months of May and September 2020, a total of 41,80,945 bicycles were sold in India.
With the second wave of the COVID–19 pandemic, hitting India hard in 2021, the various State governments have reimposed State-wide lockdowns, forcing people to stay indoors. It is reasonable to expect that this will increase the dependence of people on bicycles and add new impetus to the sale of bicycles in the Country.
Boom in bicycle sales in other jurisdictions
United States – According to the NPD group, the sale of bicycles in the United States saw a spike post March, 2020. It was reported that the sale of bicycles, bicycle parts, bicycle accessories and helmets were 50% higher than the sales that were made in the same month in the previous year. The combined value of all sales amounted to 1 billion US Dollars in a single month.
Europe – In France, according to a report of the National Counting Platform, the levels of cycling in urban areas had increased by 31% by the month of October, 2020, when compared to October 2019. In Germany, a nationwide survey, indicated a 32% increase in the number of people using bicycles due to the COVID crisis. The survey also indicated that 27% of respondents said that they would continue to use their bicycles more than their cars, after the COVID situation ends, indicating that the COVID–19 induced cycling boom is not merely a temporary phenomenon, but rather a permanent one.
The draft National Recovery and Resilience Plan showed a 50% increase in the number of cyclists on the streets in Poland. This increase has prompted the National Government to make investments in cycling infrastructure one of the main priorities in the National Recovery and Resilience Plan.
Australia – Various Australian cities, such as Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney have seen a spike in cyclist traffic in the month of April 2020 along certain routes prompting local bodies to invest heavily in cycling infrastructure.
Therefore, there is no doubt as to the global boom in cycling that the COVID–19 pandemic has brought about.
Indian Legal Framework
The Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, (hereinafter ‘the Act’) is the statute in India which lays down the legal framework pertaining to the use of roads and motor vehicles in India. It defines a motor vehicle to be any mechanically propelled vehicle adapted for use upon roads where the power of propulsion is transmitted from an external or internal source. A prima facie reading of this definition does not unequivocally exclude the possibility of bicycles falling within its ambit.
However, when the Act is read along with the Motor Vehicles (Driving) Regulations, 2017 (Hereinafter “The Regulations”), the position is not as ambiguous. The Regulations provide that riders and drivers are to take special precaution in order to ensure the safety of other vulnerable users of the road such as pedestrians and cyclists. In addition to this, the Regulations also provide that before making turns, drivers and riders are to give way to cyclists and other pedestrians. This necessarily implies that cyclists are treated as a separate class of road users by the Act, thereby dispelling all doubts on the application of the Act to cyclists.
Due to the inapplicability of the Act to cyclists, several safety provisions in the Act and the Regulations that provide for the mandatory use of helmets by riders,obeying traffic lights and keeping on board lights in working condition, are inapplicable to cyclists and results in a legal vacuum.
Legal Framework in Foreign Jurisdictions
Unlike in India, the use of bicycles on public roads, is comprehensively regulated in foreign jurisdictions. These rules and regulations can broadly be classified into rules of the road and equipment requirements. They are in place to ensure that injuries/ fatalities to cyclists are minimised while ensuring overall road safety.
The United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, Rules 59 to 82 of The Highway Code contain the law as it is applicable to cyclists.
Road Rules – The Highway Code (hereinafter ‘The Code’) provides for a set of road rules that ought to be followed by cyclists while riding their bikes. A cyclist is not permitted to ride on a pavement and has to ensure that both hands are on the handlebar of the cycle at all times, except for when the cyclist has to signal before making a turn.
The Rules make it mandatory for all cyclists to obey all traffic signs and traffic light signals. It is prohibited to hold onto a moving vehicle or trailer, ride in an inconsiderate, dangerous or careless manner or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Equipment Requirements – The Code also makes it mandatory for a cycle to fitted with white front and red rear lights. Further, there is a requirement to have white front reflectors and spoke reflectors fitted onto the cycle.
The United States
Different States within the United States have a different set of laws that pertain to cyclists. For this discussion it is most apt and convenient to consider the law in the states of California and Oregon, as it is these States that have the greatest number of cyclists on the streets.
Road Rules – The laws of both these States provide that cyclists are required to respect and abide by traffic lights and signs. The laws of these States also oblige cyclists to ride in the same direction as the traffic, stop for pedestrians at crosswalks and signal before making turns.
Equipment requirements – The Californian and the Oregonian law make it mandatory for bicycles to be equipped with a front white light, a read red light, and reflective strips on the pedals and the spokes of the bicycles to ensure that it is visible in low light conditions. It is also mandatory for persons under 17 years of age to wear a helmet while operating a bicycle in California while in Oregon, persons below 16 years of age are to compulsorily wear helmets.
It is prohibited to ride a bicycle under the influence of drugs or alcohol in both states.
The law in Australia that applies to cyclists is more or less uniform across the country.
Obeying traffic signals is mandatory and in situations where there are bicycle specific traffic signs that are provided for on roads, those too are to be followed.
Every bicycle rider in Australia is required to be equipped with a helmet while riding. The bicycles itself has to be fitted with a front white light that is visible at least 200 metres from the front of the bike and a red rear light that is visible at least 200 metres from the rear. In addition to this, bicycles are to be fitted with a red reflector on the rear in order to reflect the light from the headlights of cars, making the bicycle visible at night. There is no law in Australia that prohibits riding under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
In the year 2016, the total of 102 cyclists had lost their lives due to road accidents in the United Kingdom. During the same year, the United States recorded 840 cyclist fatalities. The number of cyclist fatalities in Australia is relatively lower with 651 cyclists dying due to road accidents during the 17 year period between 1999 to 2016, with an average of 38 deaths per year. It is pertinent to note however, that India, a nation where the number of cyclists on the public roads is considerably lower than that of the United Kingdom and the United States, recorded over 2580 fatalities to cyclists during the same period.
A comparison between the number of deaths of cyclists in countries where road laws apply to cyclists with the number of deaths in India, indicate that fatalities are significantly reduced when cyclists are bound by law to follow certain rules. In light of the recent boom in cycling in India, it is imperative that the Ministry of Road Transports and Highways and the various Transport Departments at the state level take steps to make and implement rules for cyclists to follow. These rules can be along the lines of per – existing rules that apply to cyclists in other jurisdictions. Concrete steps by the government are of vital importance to ensure that cyclists are safe on the roads in India.
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