(Photo: Andreas Winter)
Bike Snob

Our Woefully Outdated Licensing Laws Kill Cyclists

An unlicensed truck driver killed a 13 year-old cyclist in Brooklyn. It’s time to take motor vehicle licensing and registration into the 21st century.


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Bicycles annoy certain types of people. For this reason, scarcely a day goes by where some ornery fusspot somewhere doesn't call for the licensing and registration of cyclists. Various legislators from Oregon to New York have proposed such schemes over the years (just this week New York City Council Member Karen Koslowitz brought it up again), and demands for the licensing of bicyclists are a staple at community board meetings and town halls.

But we’re not here to debate bicycle licensing and registration. Indeed there is no debate. Bicycle licensing is inherently stupid for any number of reasons, including but not limited to:

Worst of all, the stubborn specter of bicycle registration is a distraction from the real issue, which is that our current motor vehicle licensing and registration system is woefully ineffectual and does little to keep dangerous drivers off the streets.

Bicycles may annoy the cane-waving NIMBY set, but cars and trucks (or, more accurately, their drivers) maim and kill consistently. Furthermore, too many of these killer drivers should not legally have been behind the wheel in the first place. Consider for example that on January 26, 28-year-old Philip Monfoletto was driving a Mack oil truck in Brooklyn with a suspended license when he killed 13-year-old cyclist Kevin Flores. This was Monfoletto’s ninth suspension and a point of pride for him—he even bragged about it on Facebook last year.

“Catch me if you can,” he wrote

Monfoletto is currently being charged with a misdemeanor, but not a felony, because for that to happen in New York, your license needs to have been suspended ten times.

Unlicensed drivers killing cyclists and pedestrians in New York City and elsewhere is nothing new, but in the wake of this latest tragedy, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams called for new legislation to punish them and the companies that allow them to drive.

While certainly important, this doesn’t even begin to address the nationwide problem of an approach to motor vehicle regulation that's about a century out of date. In 1902, after an electric Baker Motor Machine Company racecar (what, you thought Elon Musk invented the electric sports car?) swerved into the crowd on Staten Island and killed two people, the Board of Governors of the Automobile Club of America met to discuss whether drivers—chauffeurs primarily—should be subject to ability-based licensing at a time when vehicle registration was the only requirement. Said one member:

In this country licensing should be made an inter-State, a Federal matter. A local State licensing scheme would not do. Our roads are, like our rivers, a subject of National interest and importance, and should, I think, be the subject of National legislation.

Instead, states gradually introduced their own licensing schemes. As late as 1935, few actually required driver testing. (The last state to require testing was South Dakota in 1954.) Our roads may indeed be like our rivers, but by 1969 the Cuyahoga was on fire and we were seeing over 50,000 motor vehicle deaths a year.

While all states now administer testing and issue various classes of license depending on the vehicle, things still aren’t that much different. For example, there is no licensing distinction between driving, say, a Smart Fortwo and a 700-horsepower Dodge Challenger equipped with a “HellCat V8.” Sure, drivers of such cars are subject to higher insurance premiums, but apart from that anyone, with a license can legally operate one, regardless of whether they’re a hormone-addled teen or a doddering nonagenarian.

Moreover, once hormone-addled teens pass their licensing exam, that’s it—they’re done forever! Think about it: there are people driving today who haven’t had to prove their driving proficiency since FDR was president. (In fact, depending on where and when they got their license, they may never have been tested at all.) Consider all the changes motor vehicles and the streetscape have undergone over the years, then consider that the way we’re expected to keep pace with it all is through our own solitary windshield perspective. Is it any wonder there are drivers who hate bike lanes and think cyclists “appear out of nowhere”? Our set-it-and-forget-it approach to driver training ensures we receive no ongoing guidance on how to interact with other road users, even as the number and type of these road users evolve. 

Most distressingly, despite the licensing requirement, we’re basically operating on the honor system. All anyone really needs in order to take to the streets in a potentially deadly weapon is the ignition key. I can’t stream “The Simpsons” without regularly furnishing FXNOW with an activation code so they can make sure I’ve paid my cable bill, and I can’t download Charmin’s SitOrSquat restroom finder app without first giving Apple my fingerprint. I can, however, fire up the Wagon Queen Family Truckster anytime regardless of my licensing status—no pesky two-factor identification or access code necessary. And while my phone can guess where I’m headed when I hop in and tell me how to avoid the traffic, it won’t warn me when I’m speeding or alert me to a school zone.

Americans tend to think of driving as an inalienable right, and indeed, thanks to years of autocentric planning, it’s become a necessity for many. However, the truth is that operating your car on a public roadway isn’t so much a right or even a privilege as it is an account that the user must keep in good standing. And while we’ve proven shitty enough to suspend people’s driving accounts for unrelated “offenses” such as struggling to keep up with student loans or even walking, we remain far less creative when it comes to keeping them from driving because they’re actually dangerous.

Maybe if we took a 21st century approach and put the same sort of safeguards on cars and trucks as we do on Gmail accounts and Hulu content then nine-time loser Philip Monfoletto wouldn’t have been able to start his oil truck and Kevin Flores would be riding to school on Monday.

The Cuyahoga River Fire inspired the Clean Water Act.

Now it’s time to clean up the roads.

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