Cyclists angry over license plates for bikes

By James Salzer and Andria Simmons - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia cyclists have their Spandex in a wad over a plan to require license plates on bicycles and annual registration fees to pay for them.

The legislation, which is up for a public hearing Monday evening, comes from Gainesville-area lawmakers who say they’ve received numerous complaints about cyclists clogging roads and causing safety hazards.

“I live in the north end of county on a very curvy, beautiful road,” said James Syfan, a longtime resident of Hall County and one of the complainants. “I can’t tell you the times I’ve just about had to hit the ditch because of a bicyclist.”

Syfan says it’s important to hold rude cyclists accountable for unsafe riding habits. But incensed cyclists say the proposal is a lousy idea.

“It’s a foolish law, and it seems to me that a lot of it is there just to restrict cycling,” said cyclist Todd Case of Sugar Hill.

The legislation would require bicycle owners to get license plates if they ride their bikes on roads. The annual registration fee would be $15, or $48 for a “permanent registration.” It provides for a fine of up to $100 for cyclists who don’t register their bikes, which would become a misdemeanor. The measure also would allow no more than four riders per single-file line on typical roads, putting limits on group rides, and would let state and local officials restrict when and where riding is allowed.

The roads winding through the hills of North Georgia beckon bicyclists like Todd Case with tranquil, leafy stretches of pavement and challenging hills. Case rides on average of 50 to 100 miles a week and says that at least once a week you’ll find him pedaling in Hall County. Traffic is lighter in Hall, and he said many riders there are recreationists like him: they live elsewhere but want to escape metro Atlanta’s congestion.

Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, the lawmaker behind House Bill 689, said cycling has boomed tremendously in North Georgia, but with the increased number of riders has come complaints and accidents. The lawmaker said he personally knows three families that have lost loved ones in bike accidents.

“On these narrow mountain roads and on state roads, the traffic can be heavy,” he said. “The mountain roads have become especially a problem because the (bike) clubs are moving up there.”

Rebecca Serna, who heads the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition and is a board member of Georgia Bikes, said the proposal would not improve safety for bicyclists or motorists. It would also be difficult to enforce and could end up deterring people from bicycling, she said.

“If there are streets that are not safe to share, we need to address those streets instead of legislating how hundreds of thousands of people get around in our state,” Serna said.

Monday’s public hearing is at 6 p.m. at the Hall County Government Center in Gainesville. Rogers filed the bill at the end of the 2013 legislative session; legislation has a two-year life cycle, so the bill could be considered by the General Assembly when it returns in January.

It may prove, however, to be little more than a carrot to bring locals and cyclists together to discuss the issue. After all, lawmakers will be unlikely to approve new fees in 2014, an election year. And the Senate is led by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, an avid cyclist.

Some cities that enacted bicycle registration laws like San Diego, Long Beach and Los Angeles later wound up repealing them because people weren’t bothering to register their bikes. Plus, it was costing the cities more to enforce the law than they were taking in.

Serna observed that it’s impractical and ridiculous to ask a 10-year-old kid to get a license to ride a bicycle to the park.

Many cyclists view being able to ride side-by-side as a crucial safety measure. Parents who want to protect their children will ride between them and the traffic. As for prohibiting group rides of more than four bicyclists, Serna said that could have a “significant economic impact” on some communities where such rides are popular events that spur shopping and restaurant traffic.

Case, the cyclist from Sugar Hill, believes the bike bill was put forward at the behest of influential campaign donors and is not in the best interests of citizens. Syfan, who has donated to the campaigns of Gov. Nathan Deal, Cagle and Rogers, says that’s ridiculous.

Over the years, he said, he has swapped horror stories with his representatives about dangerous encounters with bicyclists. But Syfan said he did not pull any strings to get the law introduced.

“When nobody else has any valid reason for opposition, they accuse people of being corrupt,” Syfan said. “But I’m not a corrupt person. I have no strings attached to anything I do.”

Rogers said any registration money could go to bike trails/lanes or other things to help make cycling more safe.

“Thinking outside the box, maybe it’s an opportunity. If they don’t mind spending, $500, $1,500, $5,000, $15,000 for a bike, what is the big problem with $15?” Rogers asked. “It’s hard to do this stuff without money.”

But the General Assembly has a long history of passing new fees, promising to designate the money to a cause and then diverting the funding to pay for something else.

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, who filed legislation in 2012 mandating that cyclists ride single-file on most roads, called the registration fees “ridiculous.” Miller said he could only consider supporting fees if the money were dedicated to bicycle programs in a constitutional amendment. Even then, the senator said, he would have a hard time backing the idea.

“I would be extremely hesitant to support people registering bicycles,” he said. “This bill, like any other piece of legislation, requires common sense … and the unintended consequences of something like this could be tremendous.”

Miller said improving cycling education, through bike shops and cycling groups, would do more good.

That may be where Rogers is headed with the bill. While it’s a longshot in the General Assembly, he’s hoping Monday’s public hearing brings together cyclists and locals to begin talking about bike safety and the problem some motorists are raising.


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