Helmets and licenses for bikes: One idea is stupid. The other needs study.

Cover your noggin, but be careful of over-regulating

Cover your noggin, but be careful of over-regulating

This December, the Climate Conference in Copenhagen will seek a new climate agreement. Meanwhile, the tar sands in Alberta – guzzling water, turning vast swaths of boreal forest into a pock-marked moonscape – will become the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Canada by 2015.

With the exception of a few ideological climate change deniers (sorry to be so harsh, but if you ignore the preponderance of evidence, you are a denier. If you can build a preponderance of evidence opposing anthropogenic climate change, then you can be taken seriously) some governments around the world are trying to reduce their respective carbon footprints.

If you don’t care that coral reefs are in peril due to ocean acidification, if it doesn’t bother you that subtropical diseases are entering the northern hemisphere, if you aren’t perturbed that the pine beetle is reducing coniferous forests to tracts of fire wood, if it barely rattles you that many humans, typically in developing nations, feel the effects of climate change more acutely than those in nations to the north, then stop reading here. You live with your conscience and the rest of us will get on with finding solutions.

This is a heavy way to start a comment on cycling proposals in Toronto, but seeing as how we want more bikes on the road and fewer cars, Toronto should be encouraging the former and penalizing the latter.

Toronto’s works committee recently discussed two proposals: all cyclists should wear helmets and all cyclists should be licensed.

Let’s address helmets first. Are they a good idea? Probably. Anything to mitigate damaged skulls and brains following a spill seems to be an obvious benefit.

But what does this say about cycling itself? More safety gear can signal that cycling is an inherently dangerous activity. Sure it can be if you fall off your bike, go too fast and wipe out, hit a pedestrian or another cyclist. But one of cyclists’ major predators is the car. 

Therefore, we have to, as I’ve said perhaps a thousand times here on CityCaucus.com, do more to separate cars and bikes, by giving, for example, cyclists their own lanes.

Further, helmets should not serve as a deterrent to biking and the city may wish to consider, as it sagely contemplates helmet laws (which would need to be enshrined in provincial legislation), of offering subsidies to lower income Torontonians.

More bikes on the road could help with the notion of safety in numbers. That is, when more of us are cycling on the streets, drivers will be more cognizant of our presence and perhaps take greater care when zipping around town. So, while I would recommend wearing a helmet, deluging the streets with bikes may actually enhance safety. Something for the works committee to study.

Now licenses. What does the evidence say?

Toronto has been through this before. In 1935, Toronto passed a bike license by-law. The licensing process was about as complicated and bureaucratic as one would expect. And one had to go through the whole licensing rigmarole when a new bike was purchased or the licensee moved residences.

The law was scrapped in 1957 because "licensing of bicycles…often results in an unconscious contravention of the law at a very tender age; they also emphasize the resulting poor public relations between police officers and children".

But these were the olden days of Toronto, those halcyon days when boys named Billy Mulligan could bike down the street without having to dodge thousands of cars. But he did eat the exhaust of a gas-guzzling ’53 Corvette.

Bikes back then weren’t about reducing energy consumption – they were a low-cost way to get around and they were transpo for kids.

The licensing issue cropped up a few more times in 1984, 1992 and 1996 for reasons ranging from curbing bike theft to keeping riders off sidewalks and reining in bike couriers.

Each time licenses for bikes went nowhere. As the City states, reasons for not adopting a bike licensing bylaw were threefold:

  • Difficulty in keeping a database complete and current
  • Difficulty in licensing children, given that they ride bikes too
  • Licensing in and of itself does not change the behaviour of cyclists who are disobeying traffic laws

The City also considered other reasons why licensing is not a feasible idea:

Cost: City administrative costs are expensive. And if the cost is passed onto cyclists, "in many cases, the license would be more expensive than the bicycle itself"

 Age: As mentioned above, how do you handle five-year-old cyclists? The City also found that "there is an argument to be made that licensing would allow an opportunity for education, but again the bureaucracy of such a mandatory system has been seen as too cumbersome to develop"

Jurisdiction: While cities can enforce bylaws, many cyclists cross municipal boundaries, so provincial licensing would make the most sense. But this would require amendment to provincial legislation (Highway Traffic Act – HTA) and the province has rejected licensing in the past.

Enforcement: Do we want cops chasing after unlicensed cyclists? Besides, police already have laws they can enforce if a cyclist is disobeying the rules of the road (s. 218 of the HTA).

Effectiveness: Will licensing actually solve the problem(s)? If not, then why bother pursuing this, other than to make citizens feel like Council is doing something about those dastardly cyclists.

Finally, the City notes: "…given the benefits of cycling to health, the environment, and the community, on-going efforts to increase cycling compliance with traffic laws must be a part of an overall strategy to promote safe cycling"

We can all agree with that statement without implementing an expensive, onerous licensing system.

Fortunately, Councillors on the works committee are largely skeptical about licensing, but are asking city staff to "look into the idea".

My advice to city staff: check out your own website, "Bicycle Licensing". You’ll find many of the answers there.

I can assure you, however, that if the City decides to ignore evidence, good public policy, and cost-benefit ratios and proceed with a licensing system, they should be prepared for a whole lot of non-compliance (and perhaps even a refusal by the province to amend the HTA).

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  • radical sunday

    What a ridiculous editorial. There is a ton of evidence that proves climate change is not driven by humasn behavior.
    As for your bike licencing theories, save ’em for another day. Bike riders should be licenced and if they break the law, pay for it heavily in fines. that would be fair, finally.

  • I am a cyclist

    Bike riders can already be fined for breaking the law. It is the highways act (provincial) and any number of municipal bylaws that provide that legislation. Having the object you ride licenced makes no difference (you can be charged with an automobile infraction whether or not you or your vehicle is licenced). It is just the desire of the right-wing bike-haters that want to “stick it” to cyclists by regulating bikes.

  • Popper

    Your comment, “With the exception of a few ideological climate change deniers …but if you ignore the preponderance of evidence, you are a denier.” is one of the most anti-scientific comments I’ve ever read outside of theologans.
    Scientists are meant to challenge orthodoxy, science would not make such great leaps of discovery w/o sceptics. So when you use “deniers” you betray a fundamental lack of understanding of how science actually works. Science needs skeptics with sharp axes to take a crack at consensus — even climate science.
    C02 in theory could have a marginal impact on global temperatures but I haven’t seen any compelling data that supports that and besides, all the data I’ve read shows that the earth has been cooling since 1998 and we can expect the same for the next 30 years.
    My impression – as the anthropomorphic global warming theory is being chipped away by the data the “believers” are becoming increasingly chill.

  • Bikes for life

    I’m not a climate change denier, but there is another reason to get around on two wheels… It’s way more fun than driving or taking transit. Yes, even in the rain.
    I know there are a lot of peeps out there who can’t remember that first exhilerating ride, the freedom, the proverbial wind through the hair (alas, I have caved to common sense and now wear a helmet), but don’t hate on those of us who do remember and who re-live it every day on the way to and from work.
    Oh, and that license idea is just plain silly. Can you say make work project?

  • G Jacklin

    I would like to see bikes licensed. Then the next time I am nearly run down by a cyclist on the sidewalk, I have a chance to get their license number and report them. This happened to me 3 times over the summer at different locations.
    Usually they yell at me to “get out of the way” or “f… off” if I complain. I’m on the sidewalk, I walk with a cane, and they are completely in the wrong and ignorant to boot.
    When those cyclists clean up their act, I will be more supportive.

  • Nipper

    You should put your cane to good use and jam it in their spokes next time you get hassled.

  • Popper,
    Yes, science needs skepticism. But it has to be informed and intelligent. What you propose is contrarianism. Having an “axe to grind” is not a scientific approach. Please check out Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit for true skepticism and how it’s exercised in science: http://www.michaelshermer.com/2009/06/baloney-detection-kit/
    Preponderance is a vital concept in science. Indeed, that statement that you are denier if you ignore the preponderance of evidence is not an original line – it’s uttered by many scientists.
    For example, those who have to waste precious time fighting the pernicious lie called “creationism” and it’s myriad disguises (like the laughable “intelligent design”). The preponderance of evidence favours evolution through natural selection. 150 years’ worth of evidence proves that evolution is a fact.
    As for global cooling, that has been dispelled time and time again. And your data goes back to 1998 (CO2 “in theory…” please explain your position on this) I’ll need two things from you: first, an appreciation of geologic time (the Simpsons have been on longer than the time period you propose); and, peer-reviewed articles proving your point (that is, don’t direct me to some whack-job, conspiracy website).
    Finally, it’s not “anthropomorphic” climate change. This may be a typo on your part, but it also may signal that this is an issue of which you have only a cursory understanding.

  • Good idea if you want to be charged with assault and battery.

  • Radical,
    As I asked Popper, please provide the “tons of evidence” to the contrary – I’m more than happy to read it. And before you start sending me anti-scientific websites, I only accept peer-reviewed literature.
    Thanks for this.