Standard Responses is a series of articles I pre-wrote to tide me over during paternity leave. The idea is to come-up with a brief, but complete, response to a common statement of bicycle opposition. What is below is my "first draft" and I welcome input and suggested changes. The final product will be placed on a separate page on the blog so that you can just copy and paste it as needed.
"Bikers should be licensed" is a pretty common statement that is usually made to show how unfair the law is to drivers or as a "what's good for the goose is good for the gander" argument. Here's my response:
The problem with this line of thinking is that is based on the belief that a driver's license is somehow tied to the use of the road. That is incorrect. It is tied to the use of a car. Drivers are licensed because poor automobile operation is the cause of tens of thousands of fatalities every year. The same is not true of cycling.
The underlying purpose of licensing is to protect the public from unskilled practitioners. Doctors and lawyers, for example, can cause serious damage if they don't know how to safely perform their jobs, so we require them to demonstrate that they are suitably proficient in the activity. For this same reason, and in response to automobile fatalities, drivers were required to pass a mandatory examination before receiving a license and to have a license to legally drive. At the time, bikes had been on the road for two decades and no one had felt the same need to license cyclists because they cause far fewer fatalities.
We have several classes of operators based on the type of vehicle they operate, the difficulty of operating it and the danger it represents. To become licensed to drive a car is significantly easier than to become licensed to drive a bus or multi-axle truck. By the same measure, driving a car is clearly more dangerous and more difficult than riding a bike. Most people would agree that driving a car requires more responsibility than riding a bike; which is why we have a minimum driving age, but we allow children to ride bicycles at a very young age. Any licensing procedure for cycling would have to be simple enough for a very young child to pass, or children would not be allowed to ride bikes in the street; and a test so simple would be of little use.Furthermore, most cyclists already have a driver's license. Certainly the standard for getting a driver's license would be higher than that of a cyclists license, making the exercise moot for most people.
That having been said, a cyclist license could serve a real purpose if it served as a first step in the process of getting a driver's license. In other words, one would be required to get a cyclist's license before getting a driver's license just as one must get a driver's license before getting a commercial driver's license. DC school children could be licensed in the first grade as part of a PE course. Such a requirement could lead to safer cycling and safer driving.
Of course if safer streets are the goal, a more stringent driver's licensing process and higher license retention threshold would be a better way to achieve it.