Opinion: Licensing debate should focus on reform, not revenge

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on August 24th, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Source: BikePortland

Portland Commuters

Once again we find ourselves in the midst of the big debate: Should bike riders be required to have a license?

This time it comes up following a decision by the City of Portland to partially close N. Wheeler Ave. The closure prevents all vehicles (not just cars and trucks) from turning right from Broadway and it was done to stop a scary history of right-hook collisions. Bob Huckaby, who owns a business that uses Wheeler for access, was opposed to the closure from the get-go. He saw the move as an unfair penalty on people who drive. In his mind, the right-hook problem exists only because people do not come to a complete stop when bicycling down N. Flint Ave., which is just a few yards upstream from Wheeler.

I agree with Bob. It’s unfair when the actions of one road user negatively impact another. But while I share his concerns about the issue, I disagree that pointing fingers at bicycle operators and calling for mandatory licenses will achieve the goal. Let’s put our energy towards reform, not revenge.

So what would reform look like? I’ve got some ideas. Maybe this will be a start…

  • Oregon could become a national transportation leader by making the Department of Motor Vehicles more inclusive. Many Oregonians do not own cars, yet they still operate a legal vehicle on our roadways. As transit, car-sharing, and biking options improve, the number of people who are carfree or low-car is going up all the time. We should move toward a Department of Vehicles (see what I did there?) that respects the way everyone gets around and isn’t so motor-vehicle centric.
  • Our current traffic laws are woefully inadequate for people on bicycles. The ORS is full of confusing grey areas and language that doesn’t truly respect bicycles like the vehicles they are. Currently, bicycles are this strange legal hybrid, sometimes treated exactly the same as cars, other times like people on foot. Citizens and advocates have valiantly chipped away at the ORS for years to make it more bike-friendly; but perhaps it’s time for a set of wholesale, ground-up changes that do justice to the bicycle’s unique traits. How about an omnibus bicycle legislation bill in the 2013 legislative session that takes a big swing for fences instead of just a few more bunts? The bill could clean up outdated laws whose grey areas continue to confuse citizens, cops, and judges (stops as yields (in only some cases!), mandatory sidepath, fixed gear bicycles, bike lanes stopping at intersections, and so on). A clearer set of laws will reduce confusion and improve compliance.
  • And speaking of new laws, legislators shouldn’t be allowed to pass new traffic laws unless they identify funding to pay for enforcement and education. I am tired of laws that lack real teeth because they are not enforced enough (cell phone use/texting while driving) or never understood (vulnerable roadway user law).
  • Perhaps we could set aside more of the funds for enforcement and education from ticket fine revenue. In Portland’s Bureau of Transportation, the Community and Schools Traffic Safety Partnership funds great projects and programs. Part of the funding is from ticket revenue. Can we increase that set-aside amount to bolster that program and others like it?
  • Whether people primarily drive or bike, they need more training on bicycle laws — especially if they live in cities where bicycling is prevalent. Like Tom Richards in The Guardian wrote about so well earlier this month, perhaps a cycling proficiency test should be a required to get a driver’s license? Or at the very least, the driving test should include more bicycle-related questions. (And yes, I realize that knowledge of all traffic laws — not just bike laws — isn’t as good as it should be.)
  • We could approach private insurance companies to add bicycling proficiency tests to their “Good Driver Discount” programs. And the same thing could go for companies that offer bicycle insurance: If you complete a course to demonstrate you know the laws and how to ride safely, you get a discount on monthly premiums.
  • Safe Routes to School, a tried and true federally-funded program that teaches elementary and middle-school students how to bike and navigate traffic laws on two wheels, should be available all the way up to high school. The new federal transportation bill gives ODOT more leeway to spend money on this program. If we could teach bike law and bike safety in high schools, we’d not only see better behavior from the next generation of riders, we’d give kids more (less expensive) options for getting around that just the family car.
  • A bicycle license could be a cool idea; but the devil is in the details. I’m not opposed to a possible new program that would couple some sort of mandatory bicycle law/safety testing (for adults only) with an official state license. If this license came with a similar expectation of institutional respect and resources that I receive as a driver, then I’m all for it. If it comes from someone who is angry because they aren’t comfortable with how bicycle use is changing our streets, and if it feels like a punitive measure, then count me out. A bicycle license should be seen as a constructive idea and a program with benefits for everyone, not as bargaining chip in a dead end debate about who deserves respect on the roads.
  • This is just a start. I know there are many other layers to this issue and ideas on how to move it forward. Let’s get them on the table. I don’t know how much is possible; but the old and acrimonious debate isn’t working. If we truly want to move this ahead, we need to work together, and it’s hard to work together when everyone’s yelling at each other. For more on bicycle licensing, see my response to Huckaby’s plans at the end of yesterday’s post and read our past coverage.

(Publisher’s note: Thanks to all of you for the insightful and productive comments this past week (nearly 1,000 in the past five days!). Next week I plan to sit down with Bob Huckaby and talk. I have no idea how that will go, but I will keep you posted. — Jonathan)