The Magical Powers of Bicycle Licenses

July 7, 2011

In the wake of a serious cyclist-pedestrian collision, concerned and non-wheeled citizens across Toronto are wondering how they can protect themselves from aggressive, negligent, and careless cyclists. Many of them are coming up with very stupid ideas.

Sun Columnist Michele Mandel had this to say about the power of bicycle licenses:

Maybe then they would take the rules of the road more seriously. Maybe then they would think twice before they mow down a pedestrian while riding the wrong way on a one-way street.

That’s some wishful thinking.

Do people think that cyclists don’t actually know the rules of the road? That the meaning of a red light or a one-way sign becomes unclear once you get on a bicycle? That the cyclist might have made a simple choice to steer a little to the left if he had passed a written test? Or that a license will guarantee its holder both knows and follows the law as though it’s connected to an electronic chip implanted in the cerebral cortex?

Motorists are required by law to have a license, but a casual observation of any street will find countless drivers who bend, break, and outright flout the law. People with drivers licenses, insurance, and perhaps even some formal training still drive drunk, race, and speed through school zones, never mind run red lights and park in spaces with perfectly legible “No Parking” signs.

Cyclists and Motorists may quibble and squabble, but one trait is common to both: They’ll ignore the law when they think they know better, and they’ll break it if they don’t think they’ll get caught.

But, you might say, a license system that included demerit points, like Ontario’s driver’s license, might prevent a rogue cyclist from repeating his behaviour.

So if cyclists should be licensed just the same as drivers, let’s give our skull-cracking cyclist six demerit points for careless driving. As punishment for this flagrant abuse of wheeled transportation, he shall receive a warning letter.

Okay, but if he does it again – within two years, anyway, since demerits are off your record after that – he’ll have twelve demerit points. That’s pretty bad, right? The consequence of racking up that many demerit points?

At nine points, you may have to go to an interview to discuss your record and give reasons why your licence should not be suspended. If you don’t attend, your licence may be suspended. 

You might have to go to an interview, or you might not. There’s a possibility you might have your license suspended, but maybe that’s not necessary for someone who’s only been convicted of careless driving twice in a two-year span.

Okay, but after your third conviction for careless driving you’ll be at 18 points. This time, you’re automatically losing your license. For 30 days.

After that, you may (there’s that word again) have to pass a test to get your license back. If you do that, you’ll get seven points taken off.

Throw in yet another conviction for careless driving and you’ll lose your license for six months. That, at least, sounds substantial, and it only took four convictions for careless driving – any of which could have caused serious injury or death – in two years.

Of course, that’s a worst-case scenario. If you just commit a minor infraction like opening a car door improperly, you’ll only get two demerits. You could kill five cyclists before even facing the possibility of a license suspension, though each one will also cost you $110.

So by all means, let’s license all the reckless cyclists who bite their thumbs at law-abiding motorists and well-meaning traffic signs. If our pedestrian-ramming cyclist carelessly runs down another three old ladies in the next two years, he’ll have to take a six-month break from legally riding his bike. That’ll teach him.

(Unless he just ignores the license suspension. Plenty of drivers do that.)

(He will also have to pay fines. But he has to pay fines whether he has a license or not. Have you ever noticed that people who say cyclists should be licensed so the laws can be enforced don’t understand that most of the Highway Traffic Act can be enforced regardless of licenses? How can someone who is licensed to drive be so staggeringly ignorant? Is it possible that possessing a license doesn’t ensure knowledge of and compliance with all relevant laws?)

At this point, you may well say: The system is stupid. And I would agree with you.

But there’s absolutely nothing about it that would be better or safer by making cyclists have a license.