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Should bicycle be licensed?

Note:  The following is a reply by Doug Regular, CAN-BIKE National Examiner,  to CBC Radio's Reporter Blair Sanderson who was working on a story about bicycle licensing.  


Good day Mr. Sanderson,


Yes, I recognize your name, as I am a frequent CBC Radio listener.


I'm curious to see this "survey" where the majority of Canadians feel that bicycles should be licensed.  This little nugget comes around every few years from non-cyclists demanding a tax and often lamenting about scoff law bicyclists.  It is true that many cyclists drive through stop signs and red lights, it is also true that many motorists speed, fail to signal, roll through stop signs, don’t use seatbelts and text while driving.  Every milieu has its own scoff laws.  Cyclists are – sadly – no different.


In an attempt at mitigation, I became a CAN-BIKE Instructor in 2006 (a program funded by Transport Canada).  Unfortunately, as with the many driver education programs, the CAN-BIKE program is completely voluntary.  Some cyclists, as well many motorists, feel that “they” do not need any training - a typical human failing.  Undaunted, I became a member of a team of cyclists that co-authored the Nova Scotia Bicycle Safety Handbook.  It details proper road etiquette for bicyclists and motorists.


The motor vehicle is a wonderful technology for traveling long distances, carrying heavy loads or giving more independence to those with limited physical mobility.  I use mine to transport my bike to ride the Cabot Trail.  However, along with that prized freedom comes a huge debt to society as a whole.  That’s because motor vehicle use has many generally negative consequences as well. 


It is against that backdrop that I would like to address those who demand a tax to control the cycling public.


The latest attempt at a bicycle licensing system was scrapped in 1976/77.  It failed because the cost to administer and police the program was prohibitive and taking valuable resources off the street for minor infractions.  Such a system has been tried in other provinces and countries and the result was the same.


One of the main reasons for charging motorists to obtain a license, register their vehicles and have insurance is that automobile operators are responsible for thousands of fatalities and tens of thousands of injuries every year.  According to the Transport Canada, Statistics Canada, and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics websites, an average of 2,957 annually died in motor vehicle collisions in Canada between 1995 and 2004.  The same period averaged 600,000 motor vehicle collisions annually on Canadian roadways.  Additionally in 1990, 1995 and 1996, the only years for which the statistics are readily available, an average of more than 204,000 people were injured annually.   


A quick mental calculation would reveal that these sad events result in billions of dollars in rescue, care, treatment, personal injury compensation and repair costs.  These observations ignore the other health care burdens which are resulting from the chronic overuse of the automobile: obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart and stroke and a host of other serious physical ailments.  Bicycles and their riders simply don’t account for any such things.


 In fact I'll direct you to a Transport Canada document entitled Analysis and Estimation of the Social Cost of Motor Vehicle Collisions in Ontario (2007) which is a study that determined the social costs of motor vehicle crashes in the 13 provinces and territories across Canada.  This study states that the costs of these 600,000 motor vehicle accidents, in 2004, equates to $62.7 billion for Canadians.  That's a lot of money, and a lot of deaths and injuries, for the privilege to use the automobile, don't you think?

 You can find that report here


Unlike the motor vehicle, bicycles also have a minimal impact on street expansion and on street maintenance and repair.  Thus, those who argue that cyclists should pay “their share” should consider how small – proportionally – that share would really be.


As more people ride bicycles instead of driving motor vehicles, positive spin-offs result: cleaner air, healthier people, reduced traffic congestion, reduced noise, reduced parking difficulties, and cost savings on road maintenance and on public transit.


Cycling is neither inherently dangerous nor particularly difficult; therefore, like walking, we allow people to do it for free.  Requiring cyclists to pay a license fee would be like requiring pedestrians to pay a toll to use sidewalks or ped-ways—an absurdity that most members of society would agree disincentivizes behavior (cycling) that’s beneficial to everyone.


Different vehicle types have different advantages and disadvantages, and different people have different needs and preferences. Fortunately, our roadways and traffic laws allow accommodation of a diversity of vehicle types for transportation. If this were not the case, many people would be limited to vehicles they don't need, don't want, can’t afford, or can't use.  However, this diversity requires co-operation and patience of all road users because an unfortunate reality of our roadway system is that all forms of traffic affect all other forms of traffic. No road user is immune to traffic delays nor innocent of creating them for others.


Some motorists who wish to avoid their responsibilities and occasional inconveniences of motor vehicle travel have claimed that use of slow, open vehicles on roadways is unreasonably dangerous. However, bicycle riders who follow the rules of the road and motorists who exhibit patience, pass cyclists when safe, and at a safe distance will all enjoy a better safety record. Our society's respect for the travel rights of vulnerable but lawfully operating road users is what keeps all road users safe. Those impatient road users (thankfully a minority) who treat others with disrespect and make inflammatory statements intent on depriving other groups of their legal right to travel upon our public system are the ones creating the real danger.


Doug Regular

CAN-BIKE Instructor/National Examiner

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