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Cycling

May 4, 2014

Should cyclists need a licence to ride on public roads?

The NSW Roads Minister says he's "increasingly persuaded" of the need to look at licenses for cyclists to reduce serious casualties. But it's unlikely it would make cycling safer

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Police allocation of fault in car/cyclist crashes resulting in serious injuries to the cyclist, SA. (source: VL Lindsay, Injured cyclist profile)

The notion that bicycles should be registered gets aired frequently, but we hear less about the idea that cyclists themselves should be licensed.

Last week NSW Roads Minister Duncan Gay changed all that. He brewed up a shitstorm when he told 2UE’s John Stanley, “I’m increasingly persuaded that we need to look at licences for cyclists” (e.g. see here, hereherehere and here).

Mr Gay’s comments were made in response to two serious collisions between cyclists and drivers on Sydney’s streets last week, one of them fatal. The implication of his comment was that licensing would be a way of significantly  reducing the incidence of such events.

It seems this is not a wildly unpopular idea, even in the Fairfax demographic. When the Sydney Morning Herald asked its readers in an on-line survey on Friday if cyclists should be required to have a licence, 42% of 13,208 respondents answered ‘yes’.

If licensing really can make cycling on roads considerably safer then it warrants serious examination. The risk of death or serious injury is much higher for cyclists than it is for motorists and, moreover, is increasing faster (see Is cycling more dangerous than driving?).

Something certainly needs to be done; and done urgently. But is licensing the answer? Would it achieve Mr Gay’s aims?

There are many problems with this idea. More than half of households (and 90% of those with children) own at least one bicycle. They’re unlikely to appreciate the cost and inconvenience of licensing each rider. It would be especially hard to design a workable licencing scheme given many riders are children.

It would inevitably suppress interest in cycling by all age groups. The reduced public health benefit from the loss of exercise associated with cycling might exceed the public health benefit from fewer fatalities and serious injuries.

But what makes it an especially silly idea is that it wouldn’t achieve Mr Gay’s objective of significantly reducing casualties. A study of car/bicycle crashes resulting in serious injury to the cyclist done last year by the Centre for Automotive Research found that, as assessed by the attending Police, the motorist was at fault in 79% of cases (see exhibit).

The most common reason for the crash was the failure of the motorist to stop or give way to the cyclist; licensing cyclists isn’t going to make those drivers obey the road rules. In the 21% of cases where the crash was the fault of the cyclist, the most common reason was inattention. Again, licensing won’t do much for that problem.

A study by the Monash Accident Research Centre found drivers are responsible for 87% of road “incidents” i.e. a near-crash where at least one party has to take evasive action. In 74% of those events the driver cut the cyclist off, turning in front of the cyclist without either providing enough space, indicating effectively or doing a head check.

The Automotive Research Centre’s study referred to earlier suggests compulsory testing of riding skills and knowledge of road rules wouldn’t do a lot to reduce casualties either. That’s because cyclists involved in crashes with cars tend to be highly experienced.

More than 85% of the Centre’s sample reported they’d cycled regularly on public roads for at least the last three years before their crash. The median distance they said they rode was 10,000 km p.a. (95% more than 1,000 km p.a.) and 60% were riding a road/racing bike at the time of the accident (almost 70% were wearing cleated shoes).

These findings are consistent with a 2012 study done by Alfred Health and the Monash University Accident Research Centre. Although it looked at injuries to cyclists from all crashes (not just collisions with cars) and also included less serious injuries, it found that 81% of injured cyclists had cycled at least 2-3 times in the week prior to their crash.

Licensing might not in any event have much impact on the riding behaviour of the sorts of cyclists who are most likely to be involved in crashes. The Monash study also found that over half of the sample reported they’d already had at least one crash in the preceding five years (34% reported at least two).

Mr Gay might imagine that licensing would give police and the courts a way of keeping delinquent cyclists off the roads i.e. revoking their license. But that only needs a law, not a bureaucratic program that places a burden on all existing and would-be cyclists (and it can probably be done under the existing law in most jurisdictions anyway).

To be fair to Mr Gay, some of the other arguments against licensing that flooded social media since he made his comment are pretty weak. In particular, the contention that possession of a driver’s license obviates the need for a cyclist’s license overlooks two salient matters.

One is that the control and safety issues involved with two wheels are very different from those involved with four; that’s why separate licenses are required for motorcycles. The testing is usually more demanding too.

The other matter is that an increasing proportion of the population, but most especially younger people, don’t have a driver’s licence. That’s likely to be especially true of the next cohort of prospective cyclists.

And Mr Gay can safely ignore some of the more overheated objections e.g. that licensing cyclists would be tantamount to licensing pedestrians.

But he can’t overlook the fact that licensing cyclists, like registering bicycles, would be poor policy. It’s unnecessary and, worse, would impose private and social costs for little or no benefit; indeed, it’s almost certain the benefits would be negative. (1)

If Mr Gay genuinely wants to reduce casualties while retaining the social benefits of cycling, he should be looking to provide much better infrastructure (both segregated and shared). He should also be thinking about root and branch reform of the road rules so the welfare of vulnerable road users is given primacy.

That can’t be achieved by loading the “costs” solely on to cyclists. Motorists will have to pay a lot more, especially in terms of foregone road space, slower speeds, and a dramatic weakening of the culture of rule-making that privileges their interests over non-motorised users.

Update: An article on this issue by Doug Hendrie, The kneejerk non-solution of bicycle licences, published on The Drum on 7 May 2014.

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  1. It should be pointed out, though, that the popular claim that riding to work saves the economy $21 per trip only makes sense if it means a bicycle is used in lieu of a car; but the great majority of existing bicycle trips are for recreational purposes or are in lieu of public transport or walking. The claim should only be made in the context of what could potentially be achieved with mode shift.

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24 comments

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24 thoughts on “Should cyclists need a licence to ride on public roads?

  1. Durge Driven

    How about paying me for riding a bike. lol

    I am unemployed the $1000 I get every 2 years as a Govenment “loan” pays for my new bike.

    Give people a incentive for buying a bike, ergo more will ride more will be healthier and carbon neutral.

    ( rollseyes)

  2. David Penington

    My bike commute substitutes for a car. No feasible public transport for this job or the previous job, so for the last 10 years.

  3. David Penington

    An interesting report of a police blitz in the Melbourne CBD last week: 613 J-walking pedestrians, 57 mobile phone using drivers, and no mention at all of cyclists. Perhaps cyclists aren’t as bad as some claim, or perhaps they are at least alert enough to spot police (and actual safety hazards). I’ve often been nearly hit by pedestrians illegally crossing from tram stop to footpath and have actually been hit by a running pedestrian (he swerved to dodge one bike he hadn’t noticed and kicked my bike)
    http://www.vicpolicenews.com.au/news/3489-pedestrians-nicked-in-melbourne.html
    http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/jaywalker-blitz-nets-44000-in-fines-20140512-zr9sv.html

  4. Tom the first and best

    18 improvements in cycling infrastructure and safety would be competitive for trips that PT is not.

  5. Roderick Eime

    .. should point out that only in cases where rider holds no other license that verifies their fitness etc

  6. Roderick Eime

    IMO Yes they should. For the purposes of: a) establishing that they can actually ride, b) understanding of road rules, c) contribution to third party insurance

  7. Alan Davies

    A pretty good editorial on this subject in today’s Sydney Morning Herald. But there’s one issue it gets wrong.

    Mr Gay also could have chosen to promote cycling as a transport option. He could have stressed the point, made by cyclist Sara Arthur in Saturday’s Herald, that every time she rides her bike to work she is also represents one fewer car competing for road space.

    That might be true for Ms Arthur personally if she would otherwise drive, but it’s not generally true. As I noted in the footnote above, the great majority of cycling trips don’t replace car trips. In the case of the journey to work, they mostly substitute for public transport. While cycling is still a real positive for over-crowded transit, the Herald’s claim is misleading.

  8. Yani

    I won’t be paying a license fee. I pay for a driver’s license and rarely use a car. You can shove where the sun don’t shine!!!

  9. Warrior Factor

    Correct. Registration won’t solve anything. Cyclists are following the law in nearly all smashes. So it’s just another layer of persecution by govt, fueled by the hate and hysteria of the general population.
    Coincidentally, I mentioned this in a new blog just posted:
    http://warriorfactor.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/australia-the-arse-end-of-the-world-for-cycling/

  10. Alan Davies

    Nik Dow #5:

    Not valid to say that the mandatory helmet law and licensing of cyclists would suppress cycling to the same degree. It’s like saying a gram of chocolate and a gram of celery will equally make you fat.

    B.P. #6:

    There’s info on registration/licensing in other places at the link I gave at #3.

    Electric Lardyland #8:

    I don’t know if more experienced cyclists are over-represented in the Adelaide study or if it’s simply because there are just a lot more of them on the roads.

    Yclept #11:

    I doubt Mr Gay could be bothered enough to be that strategic.

    Ben Heslop #12:

    I’ve discussed registration of bicycles a number of times before e.g. Is it high time push bikes were registered? Like licensing, not a good idea.

    sparky #14:

    If the data I’ve relied on really is “flawed”, please enlighten us all. How is it “flawed”?

  11. sparky

    The data you have used for fault is flawed, you’ve quoted yourself quoting another article that had ‘small numbers’.
    I imagine there would be far more accidents if brakes in cars weren’t so good, from both perspectives.

  12. Bill Hilliger

    I recall in 1958 as a newspaper boy in Perth my bicycle had to be registered at a cost of 2 shillings a year. The numberplate had to be affixed to the bicycle in a prominent place.

  13. Ben heslop

    I can think of number of reasons why registering BIKES (not cyclists) with a license plate is a good idea.

    a) Visual legitimacy to drivers
    b) Knowledge they’re contributing to roads
    c) Money to pay for cycle infrastructure
    d) Insurance in case of accidents
    e) Report the few bad riders that make some drivers treat all riders badly.

    It might also pave the way to the law changes that the author desires.

  14. Yclept

    Or was Gay just trying to divert some attention away from his government’s other issues by mooting such a stupid idea?

  15. cbp

    @B P #6

    In Japan you must register your bicycle but you don’t need a license to ride a bicycle. I don’t know for sure but I would wager that Australia is the only country that can produce such poorly thought-out ideas as Mr Gay’s.

    In regards to Japan’s bicycle registration scheme, note that Japan is a very different place to Australia and registration has very little to do with breaking road rules whilst actually riding and all to do with Japan’s infamous lack of space. Bicycling is the primary means of transport for a huge portion of the population. At the same time, space on pavements, when they exist, is -severely- limited. In many cases pedestrians are walking directly on the road, outnumbering cars 10 to 1, weaving around obstacles such as lamp posts and shop signs. This means that leaving your bike tied to a post pretty much anywhere creates a major obstacle for the constant stream of pedestrians. Therefore the police will routinely sweep streets for illegally parked bicycles (often more than once per hour). The bikes are taken to large holding areas where the owners can pay a fine and collect them. Unwanted bikes are shipped off to Korea (so I’ve heard). We simply do not have this sort of scale problem in Australia whatsoever.

  16. Roger Clifton

    If we barcoded the bicycles, it would provide a means of ensuring that the bicycle itself was safe. The right to own one could then be removed from a cyclist proven unsafe, implying that ownership carried a responsibility.

    Ownership would be easily established of recovered stolen bicycles. The chance of being checked by a patrolman might give pause to those who would casually ride a cycle of dubious ownership.

  17. Electric Lardyland

    Good article, Alan. Just a couple of quick points to add. Since the study was done in Adelaide, which is probably the most bike friendly capital city due to the comparatively larger number of cyclists on the road, I suspect the results would be worse in other cities. Also, since the number of highly experienced cyclists were over represented in the statistics, I suspect that this could be a result of drivers misjudging the speed of a fast cyclist. That is, if a driver is computing a rider’s pace as between 15 and 30kph, and they’re actually going between 40 and 50kph, the driver is probably more likely to inadvertently cut the cyclist off. I know from some of my own more harem scarem near misses, that these seem to have occurred more frequently at high speed.
    Maybe a public awareness campaign along the lines of, cyclists they can be quicker than you think.
    Of course, that would probably offend the ‘blame the minority’ modus operandi of the tabloid and talkback world.

  18. Saugoof

    We have really become extraordinarily good at blaming the victims over the last couple of decades.

    This reminds me of an excellent article about how our streets transformed with the introduction of cars and the lobbying that was involved in creating the perception that pedestrians getting hit by cars only have themselves to blame. The article is here http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/murder-machines/ it’s a lengthy, but absolutely fascinating read.

  19. B P

    Disclaimer: I’m a cyclist and I’m a driver.

    I’d like to ask whether licensing cyclists and/or registering bicycles has been introduced in other countries, and if so, what has been the effect on the accident, injury and fatality rates? According to this link (http://ipayroadtax.com/licensed-to-cycle/licensed-to-cycle/) it’s used in Japan and has existed in other countries in the past but there seems to be very little examination of the safety benefits to cyclists.

    It will be interesting to see the accident stats after the Queensland Govt’s two year trial of minimum passing distances. (http://qld.gov.au/transport/news/features/cycle-safe/index.html)
    It seems logical this would increase safety for cyclists with a minimum of cost and ongoing administration. What it doesn’t do is pander to the vocal minority of voters who don’t see cyclists as legitimate road users. Licensing cyclists gives the appearance of a government that’s pro-active on cyclists’ safety but by placing the burden on the cyclists themselves and without requiring any behaviour change from drivers.

    I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but the Qld govt is to be commended for making a brave political decision and I hope this is adopted across all states. The laws are simple and make sense although enforcement could be challenging. One of the interesting parts of the Qld trial is that it allows drivers to cross centre lines, including unbroken double lines. Doing this in my state of Vic is technically illegal and I aften see drivers trying to squeeze past riders (myself included) to avoid crossing double lines.

    As a driver who tries to be careful and observant around cyclists, I’m sure there have been times when I’ve been closer than a metre to the rider I’ve passed. In addition to the moral obligation not to harm other road users, knowing we also have a legal obligation (and financial incentive) to pass safely will likely tip the balance in favour of cyclists who are by far the more vulnerable road user.

  20. Nik Dow

    Good to see The Urbanist accepts that discouraging cycling results in a net negative for public health. I particularly like the statement that “It would inevitably suppress interest in cycling by all age groups.” Inevitably. Obvious. Just like forcing people to wear helmets, who otherwise would exercise their own judgement, already “suppress[es] interest in cycling by all age groups”. Somehow it’s obvious to Mr Davies when it’s licensing, but not obvious when it’s helmets.

  21. Glenn Carter

    I hope the high incident of driver negligence has been dealt with appropriately. I am tired of being abused by drivers. Our roads are not owned by drivers, nor cyclists, or pedestrians. Licensing cyclists will not change the statistics below. Pedestrian accidents are often caused by driver negligence, licensing pedestrians will not change the number of incidents. Changing the penalties for these accidents will change driver behaviour. Likewise, cyclist negligence should also be dealt with severely.

  22. Alan Davies

    Boscombe #1:

    I think it’s right, albeit inelegantly put.

    Dylan Nicholson #2:

    Doesn’t look like licensing has been tried in too many other places – see here.

  23. Dylan Nicholson

    The only reason I see some merit in it is that it may help to grant a sense of legitimacy to bike riders. I’ve read of and observed first hand far too many occasions where it’s clear drivers just don’t accept cyclists should even be on “their” roads. A law that require adult cyclists to have some sort of registration in order to ride their bikes on the roads may help here, though I’d like to know if it had been tried anywhere else with some sort of success first. I’d also suggest that simply changing the focus on how we’re taught to drive and the tests we need to get driving licenses is probably a more effective way of achieving the same goal, at least for future generations.

  24. boscombe

    “indeed, it’s almost certain the benefits would be negative.”

    Doesn’t sound quite right.

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