Should bicycles be registered or cyclists licensed?Posted: April 6, 2010
There was a major debate over the Easter weekend on the VECCI blog about whether or not bicycles should be registered and/or cyclists licensed. It was initiated by an online poll started by VECCI. As of Monday night a narrow majority had voted in favour of licensing (51:47) and mandatory education of cyclists (50:45). Not clear to me why you’d license a cyclist other than to educate/train her, but it’s not my survey.
My view is that registration is not a good idea. However there’s a stronger argument for licensing notwithstanding there are some real difficulties in implementation.
Registration is about the costs in road upkeep and repair imposed by motor vehicles – heavier vehicles pay more because road damage goes up exponentially with axle load. As bicycles cause next to no damage this does not seem like much of a justification for registration.
Even the notion of making third party personal insurance compulsory for bicycles would be hard to justify given bikes are lightweight devices that seldom actually hurt other people. The cyclists themselves, yes, but rarely third parties.
In the absence of any justification for registering bicycles or having compulsory third party personal insurance, is there still a warrant for ‘plates’? They could be useful in identifying cyclists who run red lights which, let’s face it, is a pretty common practice.
But this would be a decidedly small pay-off for the administrative expense of requiring ‘plates’. After all, they’d be no use for speed cameras and toll-road cameras as for all practical purposes these have no relevance for bicycles.
Moreover, given the need for legibility (particularly for cameras), ‘plates’ would have to be similar in size to those for cars. This would be a serious inconvenience on a human powered machine that is sensitive to wind resistance.
When it’s all boiled down, it’s important to be able to police infractions by drivers because they drive large machines with the potential to cause serious damage to property and injury to people. While personal injury to third parties caused by cyclists is not unknown, its rare and is an order of magnitude less likely compared to cars.
I think there’s a better case for a one-time licensing test for anyone (say 12 years and over) who rides a bicycle on public roads. I envisage this would be a desk-top test, not a riding test. The rationale is education – bicycles can be a danger to their riders, so knowledge of the road rules and how to ride in traffic is vital. It’s also important that cyclists know their obligations to other road users (and vice versa).
I think it’s a fair bet that cyclists would be regarded by motorists as more legitimate users of the road if they were licensed. An offset could be beefed up education about the legitimacy and vulnerability of cyclists as part of the driver licensing process.
The key test for any licensing scheme is the cost of administration, including mandatory testing and collection of fees. Kids could be handled at the school level and new drivers could be tested for cycle ‘sense’ at the same time they sit their driver’s licence test.
But this still leaves the great majority of cyclists having to sit a test in order to do what they’ve already been doing in most cases for many years. Most will only be occasional cyclists. I expect mandatory licensing of this group would be extremely unpopular and quite simply politically untenable.
The answer could be to deem anyone with an existing driver’s licence as legally having the right to cycle on public roads provided they carry their licence with them. When their licence comes up for renewal it could be endorsed accordingly on payment of a small additional fee, the proceeds of which would be hypothecated to rider education. Thus only the quite small proportion of adult cyclists who do not have a licence to drive a car would be subject to a special test.
I admit this sounds wimpy. It’s saying that mandatory licensing will be introduced progressively over a generation or even two. Nevertheless, it would pick up the young who are the most at-risk group relatively quickly. And it sends a message to all current cyclists that their use of the road is conditional, or ‘licensed’ (via their driver’s licence), on riding in a manner consistent with the road rules. It says to all drivers that cyclists are legitimate road users. It tells cyclists they have obligations.
As it wouldn’t test the great bulk of existing riders, all of this would need to be backed up by a Victorian Government public education and awareness campaign about how to ride safely on the road and be considerate of other users. It would be targeted at existing cyclists. There should also be a parallel campaign aimed at establishing the legitimacy of cyclists in the minds of drivers.
I’m a keen cyclist – I think all cyclists would be better off if we were licensed. I think a minimal scheme like this has some chance of winning support, although I’m not holding my breath.