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Should you really need a license or insurance to ride your bike (Ontario)

In a recent survey taken by the “Campaign Research Poll” of 506 Toronto voters found that 60% of them wanted cyclists to be licensed and insured. 57% of those surveyed also wanted the City of Toronto to have more bike lanes.

This poll raised significant debate for motorists, cyclists and politicians. Personal Injury Lawyers and insurers got involved as well (as they should).

It should be noted that some of the most serious accident cases which our law firm handles deals with cyclist accidents. It only makes sense. When a bike collides with a car, the car will win! The bike doesn’t have seatbelt, bumpers, anti lock brakes, or air bags to soften the blow. A bike accident is a pure collision of flesh and bone vs. car and pavement. The damage is frequently catastrophic, even fatal.

We would submit that insuring and licensing cyclists is not only an urban issue, but also a largely Toronto issue. Having travelled the Province of Ontario, the cries for bike licensing and insuring of cyclists isn’t on the radar. The density in the downtown core of other larger Ontario cities simply isn’t the same as Toronto’s. There are just fewer people, which are sharing more space making the roads a bit more manageable and easier to navigate. Do you really want to encourage cyclists in (insert small Ontario Town/City here) having all of their cyclists licensed? Do you really think that the local police force is going to have the time or resources to properly enforce bike licensing for teens en route to school in a small community like Thamesford, Ontario?

Interestingly, the idea of licensing cyclists was examined by the City of Toronto town counsel back in 1935!!!!

On May 20, 1935 the City of Toronto passed a bylaw to license residents owning and using bicycles on the highways of the City.

The licensing process was quite complicated. Cyclists had to apply for a license through City Hall. Then the cyclist was required to go to a police station and have a police officer inspect the bicycle and fill out paperwork. That paper work was returned to City Hall and a license was granted. The cyclists then had to return a duplicate license to the same Police Inspector where the bicycle was examined. Then a metal plate was issued for the year and affixed to the mudguard of the bike.

Any time the cyclist moved or transferred or exchanged his bike, the new information had to be filed. The cost of the yearly license was 50 cents and the fine for not having a license on your bicycle was $5.00.

On February 4, 1957, City Council repealed the bicycle licensing by-law in the City. At that time, there was a communication from the Canada Cycle and Motor Company Limited suggesting the City use the services of the Bicycle Guild Incorporated to administer bicycle licensing.

At that time, the City opted out of bicycle licensing, stating amongst other issues that “licensing of bicycles be discontinued because it often results in an unconscious contravention of the law at a very tender age; they also emphasize the resulting poor public relations between police officers and children“. Nathan Phillips was the Mayor at the time and it is his signature on the by-law amendment.

The City of Toronto has investigated licensing cyclists on at least three occasions in the recent past:

  • 1984: focus on bike theft
  • 1992: focus on riding on sidewalks, traffic law compliance and couriers
  • 1996: focus on riding on sidewalks, traffic law compliance and couriers

Licensing in the nineties has been most often discussed in response to concerns for pedestrian safety on sidewalks, where incidents of collisions, near misses, and a lack of courtesy have made many pedestrians, including seniors feel insecure.

Each time the City has rejected licensing as a solution to the problem under discussion.GoldFingerBanner

The flip side of the argument is as follows:

  • Bikes are considered vehicles under the Highway Traffic Act, and they are treated as such under the Act. That means they have to follow the same rules of the road as cars do
  • Bikes are vehicles on the roads, just like cars. Cars are licensed; so why not bikes as well?
  • Bikes cause or contribute to accidents just like cars do. But without any licensing or insuring of bikes, there is no accountability for cyclists.
  • Police rarely enforce the rules of the road on cyclists. Licensing and insuring cyclists would likely encourage stricter enforcement and there would be a better mechanism in place to penalize wrong doers. It would also encourage greater road safety for cyclists so that they better understand and follow the rules of the road
  • Motorists subsidize the roads which bikes use with licensing; cyclists should have to contribute to the roadways the same way which motorists do
  • Cycling accidents happen, and they are dangerous. Cyclists should be insured to safeguard in the event of a serious accident and reduce the health care cost burden on the OHIP system so that private insurance can absorb some of those costs
  • The Motor Vehicle Accident Claims Fund covers accidents involving uninsured motor vehicles. It will also cover a cyclist who doesn’t have insurance of their own, who is involved in an accident with a motorist driving without insurance of their own. Requiring cyclists to have their own insurance would effectively pass the claims cost of uninsured bike accidents who are hit by uninsured cares from the Ontario Government on to the private sector who is in the business of insuring claims (that would make sense for the tax payer…)

There is no right answer to whether or not bikes should be licensed and insured. The debate surrounding the the licensing of cyclists has been on going in the City of Toronto since 1935. One thing we can all agree on is that sharing the road and safety is important. Congestion and the environment are also important issues as well. Bikes can certainly ease the burden on congestion, but if they aren’t being used properly, they can equally contribute or add to that congestion.

From a personal injury perspective, having your own car insurance gives you the right to sue if a car hits a bike. Without your own car insurance, your rights to sue are minimized.

Food for thought: Do you think that private insurers would like the idea of mandatory bike insurance for cyclists? It would open a whole new market up for them. At the same time, insuring a cyclist, knowing the serious injuries which occur as a result of a bike accident is likely expensive business.

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