Most of you, even those outside of Australia, have by now heard of the newest attempt to get Australians pedalling: mandatory ID cards for cyclists.
This is (so far) only within the State of New South Wales, which contains a few new rules that they are calling a “cyclist safety package“. Taking up most of the column inches is that the Government feels it will be beneficial to make it “compulsory for adult riders to carry photo ID so that they can be identified in an emergency or if they break the road rules.” This was bundled together with a few new regulations, including an aggressive increase in the fines for cyclists who break certain laws (in order to bring them in line with motorist’s fines), and the cherry designed to sweeten the turd-sandwich: that motorists must pass cyclists safely (which was already a law, of course, but now it has parameters). Forming an idea of how cyclists feel about all of this yet?
The responses have covered the gamut. At one end, these laws are described as oppressive, smacking of totalitarian, and contemptible. Comparisons to a certain Germanic region during a certain period of time in the 1940’s have been made. At the other end, it’s no big deal. Besides, other States have increased fines with no adverse effect on cycling participation (no source cited…), so why are you all so worked up about it? In the middle are some entirely reasonable perspectives.
The issues surrounding this are many. Legally, cyclists are vehicles, and should be considered so in the eyes of the law… right? On the other hand, what about proportionality? There is a Grand Canyon-sized gap between how dangerous a cyclist can be compared to a motorist. Won’t these excessive fines put people off of cycling at a time when we need more people taking it up? Will it do anything for safety, as is supposedly the point? Will it enforce the law more effectively? Will it help or make worse the apparently/supposed strained relationship between cyclists and motorists? In the event of an accident, doesn’t it make sense, though? What about pedestrians? If the idea is to enforce the laws and identify people in the event of an accident, why don’t they have to carry ID cards and face fines comparable to those of motorists?
Will it improve safety for cyclists?
The requirement to leave no less than 1-1.5 meters when passing a cyclist can only have a positive effect on safety. That’s why South Australia put in into effect (along with pavements being fair-game for cyclists when needed). ID cards? Sure, for identifying unconscious, mortally wounded, or dead cyclists. Has that been a problem in the past? How many cyclists involved in a collision have been unable to be identified in Australia in the last… well, ever?
Finally, what about the fines? Will it create a safer environment for cyclists? How? If you feel that performing an action is risky, then you will choose to avoid performing said action. A fine will probably stop a cautious cyclist from slipping through a red light where no cars are present, but it will have no effect on the rebellious “scoff-law” who blows red lights like they’re going out of style.
Will it enforce the law more effectively?
As I already alluded to, mostly, no. But a little, yes. Those who consider the law something to be respected are the same people who consider their own safety as somewhat important. It will make those who already use caution second-guess crossing an empty intersection against a red, or even a simple pedestrian crossing when the red hand is up. Those who consider behaving dangerously with little or no consideration to others as somehow making them more attractive to other numbskulls will only see the higher risk (larger fine) as a bigger rush, or challenge, or as endowing them with more bad-assness. Result – it will cause more people to be senselessly law-abiding while doing little or nothing for the actual safety of anyone (that’s my view, anyway…)
Won’t these excessive fines put people off of cycling at a time when we need more people taking it up?
Well, that’s somewhat the same as the helmet debate. The fact is, many people won’t ride a bike if they have to wear a helmet, however legitimate you find that viewpoint. That’s not good. I’m quite sure that unreasonably high fines for breaking the law will make some people see cycling in a different light (i.e. “being characterised as a menace to society—people who require surveillance, supervision and control”…. who “can’t leave the house without your officially mandated, government issued ID card”…. and “will result in bike riders being seen as a fringe group that needs special rules to keep them in check.”), but do I see this as something that will put anyone off of cycling? Realistically? Nope. Having to pay a licensing/registration fee, dangerous environments, being forced to wear a State mandated polyester pant-suit cycling uniform, or even just mandatory helmets, would put people off of cycling, but not steep fines for breaking the laws that almost all people abide by anyway.
Will it help or make worse the apparently/supposed strained relationship between cyclists and motorists?
Some view it as introducing equality on the roads and welcome it as a step forward in the relationship between cyclists and motorists. Some see it as yet another act of oppression against cyclists from The Man. Some just see it as another stick with which motorists and the media can beat cyclists with. Really, it’s going to go both ways, but as usual, the mainstream media will be sure to milk all of the controversy out of it for all it’s worth. Cyclists will generally be unhappy about it, and motorists (the usual loud and ignorant minority) will flare up about that. Overall – probably bad.
In the event of an accident, don’t ID cards make sense, though?
Sure they make sense. Like helmets for motorists do. Actually, that doesn’t help my argument at all, because that makes sense, and it would serve a purpose. Mandatory cyclist ID cards make sense in the “I understand how that would work” sense, but really serves no practical purpose. As I mentioned, I’d like someone to provide me a case where a cyclist was unable to be identified, or where identification has enhanced their safety, or where police don’t “already have adequate powers to stop somebody and get their details if they’ve committed an offence on the road“.
Really, who does this benefit?
What about pedestrian ID cards and the concept of proportionality?
If the idea is to enforce the laws and identify people in the event of an accident or discourage risky behaviour, why don’t pedestrians have to carry ID cards and face fines comparable to those of motorists? If proportionality is not a consideration, then anyone who has any interaction with traffic systems on any level should face monetarily equivalent fines as everyone else, right?
Our entire legal system is build on proportionality, except when it comes to cycling. Murder carries a harsher sentence than manslaughter because it represents a greater danger to society. Guns are more difficult to obtain (in most countries…) than knives because they represent far greater potential for harm. Certain chemicals are treated with greater caution, regulation, and require more education because they are more dangerous than others. This concept is easy to grasp by anyone, yet when it comes to cycling…
And finally, if you want to be treated as an equal, you have to abide by the same rules, right?
Except that’s not how we do things, historically. Real equality means that you don’t get your way all of the time. Absolute power and privilege become compromised. Gender inequality, racial inequality, social inequality – these things have always profited certain people a great deal, and each step towards equality meant that those who profited from their elevated position compromised their ability to take advantage of the situation.
If you take the right to travel freely and in a safe manner as the basis for transport equality, then that automatically requires the more dangerous elements to be more heavily regulated, resulting in the net effect that the less dangerous modes of transportation effectively carry an advantage. Equality always has a context.
The final and most difficult question to ponder, then, is, where exactly do cyclists fit between pedestrians and motorists?
To me, this is the most interesting question that ID cards for cyclists raises, and one for which I’ve never seen a satisfactory answer. Cycling occupies a fluid space somewhere between a pedestrian and a motorist. All of the issues related to cycling in public spaces are connected to this confusion as to where cyclists fit and where they don’t, and one to which cyclists, especially in places like Australia, are keenly, if not consciously, aware of. Pedestrians don’t want you on their pavements, and motorists don’t want you on their roads. The law tends to put cyclists at a disadvantage in both realms (whereas in places like *cough*Copenhagan*cough* both the pedestrian and the motorist seem to be at the mercy of the cyclist).
I don’t have the answer to this one, and it’s getting quite late so I don’t have time to mull it over any further tonight, except for this: perhaps this vexing position we cyclists are put in can also be viewed as something rather wonderful – that the humble bicycle is such a marvel that our tiny minds and complex social systems cannot grasp it, cannot understand it’s power or potential, cannot find a box of suitable dimensions to contain it in any adequate way, that all we can do is simply concede and allow it the freedom to enrich our communities and our lives.
Header image: source