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Why licensing bicyclists is impractical

Licensing bicyclists is not a solution to any public safety issue facing Seattle.

That statement is from a reader, in response Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s call for a car-bicycle safety summit and your conversation last week here about the idea of requiring cyclists to have a license.

“The fact is that most Americans worship automobiles, and when you worship something, all rationale goes out the window. When a man dies of AIDS, he deserved it because he lived an alternative lifestyle, and when a bicyclist is killed by a car, he deserved it because he utilized alternative transit. This is more or less where we are as a society. It saddens me, but I am powerless to stop it,” says Seattle Rex, whose legal first and last name is Rex.

On his news and opinion site, he wrote an explanation for why licensing cyclists is not the answer. Here are some of his reasons:

It is Technically Infeasible

Every automobile manufacturer in the world designs their cars with license plates in mind while 0% of bicycle manufacturers do the same. Were Seattle to pass a law requiring license plates for bikes, few bicycle manufacturers, if any, would start a production line for a single city of 600,000 people.

It would similarly be impossible for the city or state to mass-produce plates that would be consistently mountable/viewable on all models of bicycles.

Assuming that the state mandated the use of an alternative plate, such as a sticker mounted on the downtube, the numbers would be so small as to be unreadable by most passersby.

Bicycles Are Human-Powered

Licensing human-powered transit would be difficult at best, and impossible at worst. Skateboards, bicycles, rollerblades, unicycles, tennis shoes — there are many ways to get from Point A to Point B in a major city.

In order to truly be consistent and transit-agnostic, we would have to license pedestrians. After all, here in Seattle, there are far more Pedestrian vs. Car fatalities than there are Bicycle vs. Car fatalities. Between 2000 and 2009, 398 pedestrians were killed in Seattle.

Perhaps we will see a day when everyone wears a shirt with their pedestrian ID on the back, but I doubt that will happen soon.

Automobiles Are Uniquely Dangerous to Public Safety

Motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of death among children worldwide and are the sixth leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

How many people are hit and killed by bicyclists each year?

We don’t know. I’m sure it happens, but It’s such an uncommon occurrence that statistics are not even kept. Same goes for people hit by joggers, skateboarders, rollerbladers, etc.

A 4,000 lb vehicle with 250 horsepower is a far greater threat to civilian safety than a 25 lb vehicle producing 0.3 horsepower (max sustainable by a human).

Postulating an equivalency between bicycles and automobiles as they pertain to public safety can only be accomplished through a complete abandonment of abstract thinking.

Rex describes himself as a lifelong cyclist, both as transit and as a profession. As a bike messenger he was hospitalized three times over the course of his career after being hit with motorists’ car doors.

“I don’t have a monetary, professional, political interest in the whole Bike vs. Car thing,” he says. “I’d genuinely just like to see Seattle become a safer place for cyclists and everyone else for that matter because I live here and I love the city.”


While Seattle has focused on car-bike safety, a study out of New York today finds bicylists injure about 1,000 pedestrians a year in that state. According to the study authors from Hunter College, the actual number of accidents is “far higher” because the figures only include pedestrians who were treated at hospitals.

The study was conducted on behalf of the Stuart C. Gruskin Foundation. He was a 51-year-old Gruskin was killed by a delivery biker who was speeding in the wrong direction on a New York City street.

(Photo by Joseph Bergantine)

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