David Johnstone

Shane Warne vs. cyclists: registration and number plates

January 18, 2012

Shane Warne has managed to get himself embroiled in controversy again. This time it’s with cyclists. Firstly he wrote a series of tweets last week where he called for cyclists to ride in single file, show number plates, and pay registration. Unsurprisingly there were a lot of responses, some of which he retweeted. The classiest of them wasn’t from the wife of a certain famous Australian cricketer suggesting that he “just throw a cricket ball at them if they really annoy u”.

Today he had an altercation with a cyclist which he then tweeted about. It’s not clear what happened exactly (and trying to reconstruct the incident from only one perspective is bound to give an incomplete story), but it sounds as though a cyclist hit his car (as in a punch, not a crash), held onto his car, hit his car again, exchanged verbal abuse with him, stopped in front of him and held up traffic, and finally Warne slowly drove around the cyclist and went on his way. Warne also mentioned that he reported the incident to police and finished by restating his belief that cyclists should pay registration fees and have number plates. The thing I wonder the most about this story is why the cyclist hit Warne’s car: I’ve never heard of a cyclist hitting a car for no reason — such reactions tend to happen because the cyclist barely escaped a trip to hospital moments before, even if the driver was oblivious to the situation. But that’s not the point of this post… Update: here is the cyclist’s account of the incident.

In the discussions that have followed, it is clear that there are a lot of people who don’t understand vehicle registration fees and how they relate to road funding. This is demonstrated by both the common “cyclists don’t pay registration fees to be on the roads, therefore they aren’t entitled to use the roads” and the frequent response “the vast majority of cyclists also drive and therefore do pay”. Let’s look at some numbers.

In 2006–07 $16.2B was collected directly from motor vehicle users. Only $3.9B (24%) of that came from vehicle registration fees. The majority (56%, or $9.2B) came from fuel excise, and the remaining 20% came from a combination of stamp duty, driver’s license fees and tolls. $13.9B was duly spent on roads in 2007–08 (up from $12.1B in 2006–07). A couple of comments are in order.

Firstly, it is clear from this that registration fees don’t come close to paying for what is spent on roads. If you want to continue arguing along this line, given that the majority comes from fuel excise, soon you will be able to argue that electric vehicle owners don’t pay their fair share. But there are deeper reasons.

Secondly, and more importantly, money collected from road users doesn’t automatically turn into the money spent on roads. All the money the government collects get thrown into a big hat and then redistributed as it sees fit. Sometimes a tax is hypothecated to a particular use (for example, a tobacco tax in WA was earmarked to be used for their Quit campaign), but the vast majority of revenues aren’t like this, and these road-related revenues are no exception. A government can collect money any way it wants, and then spend it however it wants — I think it’s a good thing that not all the tax dollars paid by big miners are spent on the mining industry.

There are a few more issues to talk about concerning this hypothetical bike registration scheme. What would be it’s purpose? For revenue? For insurance? To track down stolen bikes? For licensing?

Revenue isn’t a very good reason, because it’s not going to raise much. It costs $114 to register a motorbike with an engine less than 61cc in Victoria, and a bike registration would obviously be cheaper than that. If you could somehow convince one million Australians to pay $50/year for bike registration, you would raise $50 million, and that’s a very small number in the big scheme of things. That’s also ignoring overheads, and it’s worth pointing out that the recently repealed bike registration scheme in Long Beach, California was operated at a loss.

The bike registration schemes that do exist today generally exist as a way to make cyclists have mandatory third party insurance (Switzerland) or as a way to track stolen bikes (Japan, some US cities). I doubt that there are many people who want bikes registered for these reasons, and there is a tendency for these schemes to cost more than they make.

Mandatory registration would make sense if number plates were also required. However, I think this is a very bad idea. Number plates were introduced as a way of identifying offenders of the road rules soon after cars — and road rules — were introduced, and it is the same motivation for identification that makes people want bikes to display number plates today. Society has survived for quite a long time without requiring equestrians and pedestrians to display number plates. It was only when we started to have one and a half tonne lumps of metal hurtling along roads — and the danger this entailed — that it was deemed necessary to be able to identify them. It is true that a bicycle at speed can be dangerous (as many in Melbourne are tragically aware, although you should be more worried about being killed by lightning), but I doubt number plates are needed for identification in serious bike crashes. So the historical reason for requiring number plates — because of the danger the vehicle poses — doesn’t exist for bikes.

The real reason some want bikes to display number plates is so that they can be reported when they do stupid and/or annoying things. I can appreciate this, and I would love to see cyclists doing less stupid and annoying things on the road, but I doubt it would help much. Drivers of cars don’t always behave perfectly despite having number plates, and they wouldn’t make all cyclists start following the road rules perfectly either. And it’s hard to imagine the seemingly chronically understaffed police force acting on the vast majority of complaints they would receive about cyclists — they don’t about cars. And if number plates are to exist for the reason of identifying bad behaviour of groups of people, I can think of other groups for whom it would be nice to be able to identify on the street (such as people who have been drinking). Some lawmakers in the US (both in New Jersey and New York) have recently proposed that bikes display number plates, but the proposals were met with widespread derision and never made it very far.

What impact would mandatory registration and number plates on bikes have? I have strong reservations that it would do much to improve cyclist behaviour. However, I am confident that the cost and hassle of such a program would effectively discourage many from cycling. Many supporters of registration and number plates might see this as a good consequence, but policy makers should not. Given the modern problems of congestion, pollution (and climate change) and sedentary lifestyles, it is a wonder that more people don’t view cycling more positively. I am convinced that the government should actively be promoting cycling. (On a completely different ideological spectrum, I sometimes wonder how many people who support bike registrations see pro-regulation governments as ideal.)

Finally, while we’re looking at the relationship between cars and bikes, it’s worth noting the different perspectives by which they view each other. To a driver, a bike is an inconvenience. To a cyclist, a car is something that could kill them. There’s an important difference there that should be kept in mind in all “car versus bike” discussions. Drivers must understand that they are in a position of power, and with great power comes great responsibility. Bikes can be annoying, sometimes innocently, but unfortunately not always. But to a cyclist, cars are far more than just annoying — it only takes one careless action by a driver for a cyclist to end up in a hospital or worse (and the vast majority of accidents involving bikes are cars are the fault of the driver).

I, and many other cyclists, would love for all cyclists to ride with the utmost consideration for drivers, and all drivers to drive with complete respect for cyclists. However, the poor behaviour of a minority of cyclists/drivers is often used as justification for a negative attitude towards the entire group, and no progress is going to be made when people think like this. Cyclists must ride with consideration for drivers, obey the road rules and show by example that they are respectable and law abiding road users. Drivers must drive with care and respect for cyclists, understanding the risk they pose to cyclists. Public figures must not promote antagonism towards cyclists (or drivers). And everybody should understand that mandatory registration and number plates for bikes are not an answer.

Further reading:

P.S. I’m @cyclist_dave on Twitter

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