Should bicycles be registered or cyclists licensed?

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.

7 Comments on “Should bicycles be registered or cyclists licensed?”

  1. Murray says:

    Don’t see the value in a license as a “proof of knowledge” for cyclists in general since a child who starts to cycle learns that which is necessary from parents (to a degree). As they become older they almost always obtain a driver’s licence which achieves the learning objective stated above – further endorsement is unnecessary.

    In fact, if you are simply looking for a standard form of proof that someone once knew some of the road rules then it’s sufficient to accept anything from a Learner’s Permit up – the “L” test is an existing written test of knowledge of road rules.

    However, the questions to be asked are: where will a licence be required and at what age? Will a four year old on a shared footpath have to prove s/he knows the rules which apply there? Will a supervising parent? What if a nine year old rides on the road (which is legal) – will s/he need a license? How does an unlicensed 13yo get from home to the nearby shared footpath?

    Schools have far too much loaded on them already to expect them to take on this additional responsibility. So, if you stay with the 12yo trigger, what happens to the current obesity issues in teenagers with this additional obstacle to exercise?

    The cost/benefit equation does not seem to add up.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Hi Murray
      Where we differ is that I don’t think bicycle training by parents can be relied upon to adequately teach kids the rules of the road as they apply to cycling or how best to survive on the road. Most parents teach their kids basic skills like balance at a very young age and supervise them while they’re riding. By the time the kids are old enough to ride on the road the parents (assuming they even know) don’t get around to giving them anything more than cursory instruction on road rules. And of course that’s derived from the parents own training in driving, not cycling.

      Nor do I think training for a driver’s licence adequately prepares young people for the complexities of riding a bicycle in traffic. A bicycle is so much more vulnerable that it requires a different and far more defensive approach. So in my view there’s a good case for specialised education in safe and considerate cycling to supplement driver training. The license then becomes proof of competency in both driving and cycling.

      I think the simplest thing with the age issue is to say that kids under 12 years can only cycle on public roads if they’re supervised by an adult with a bicycle license. They can however cycle on footpaths and shared paths, where no license would be required.

      I agree schools are heavily loaded already but cycling has so many social benefits that schools need to adapt to new priorities. Can’t see the problem with obesity – 99% of kids should have no trouble getting a license (BTW it would need a softer name – something like a ‘certificate of bicycle safety’). There are plenty of other exercise options for kids who don’t want to cycle.

  2. Dave says:

    I’m not sure rider education is the answer here – most cyclists who run red lights or ride down the tram lines know they’re in the wrong…

    Perhaps driver education is the key? I’m a vocal opponent of any registration system for bicycles for all the reasons mentioned on the VECCI debate and Bicycle Victoria forums (amongst other places). Every single time I speak to a new group of the pro-registration lobby I need to explain where rego money goes. Drivers simply aren’t aware of how much cyclists (as tax payers) contribute to the roads.

    I still haven’t come across an argument that has made me think twice about a registration system for bikes…

    For me, it all comes down to net positive effect bikes have on the world (economically, socially, pollution-wise and health-wise). We tax alcohol and petrol because they’re in high demand and bad for us – we should subsidise cycling wherever possible, as it’s good for us and fragile in terms of demand.

  3. Andrew(AJH) says:

    I too cannot see the benefit of a registration scheme for cyclists. That said, I would not begrudge making a small registration payment if I was sure it would be channelled into improving the cycling infrastructure. I agree with you point above about parents not necessarily being great teachers for young cyclists. I grew up in England and still have my “Cycling Proficiency Test” badge which I got after attending multiple sessions teaching me technique, road rules as well as practical riding tests. I do agree with the comment above that the “bad cyclists” who flout the road rules definitely know what they are doing is wrong and it would be a shame if all of us were made to suffer because of this.

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  6. NickS says:

    This is rubish generated by VECCI and their right wing, Liberal, anti-anything-that-might-be-‘greenish’ views. They fail to undertsand that 99% of cyclists already hold a car licence and pay rego for the car they own. We just choose to leave the car at home and ride to work. Morons!

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