Owen Courreges: May I see your bicyclers’ license?

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Owen Courrèges

This month, Mayor Mitch Landrieu made a serious and necessary concession. In delivering the welcoming address for the Bipartisan Policy Center, he conceded that, generally speaking, there is too much government regulation.

Landrieu specifically cited New Orleans historic preservation law, which often inhibits the renovation of historic properties. As I noted in a previous column, it is a sad fact of owning a home in New Orleans that ignoring the Historic District Landmarks Commission is typically easier than working with them.

Incidentally, this past week a story began making the news circuit about a ruling earlier this year by the European Union. Two German professors, Dr. Moritz Hagenmeyer and Dr. Andreas Hahn, had applied for approval of the entirely uncontroversial claim that “regular consumption of significant amounts of water can reduce the risk of development of dehydration.”

Shockingly, the EU panel rejected the claim as misleading. European Commission President Jose Manuel Berroso signed the resulting order, implying that water cannot be sold with the claim that it prevents dehydration.

The EU’s order illustrates the problem with overreaching, knee-jerk, irrational regulation perfectly. Apparently, the panel had justified its decision by citing the truism that man does not live by water alone. Even the process of hydration, they reasoned, required the consumption of certain minerals not necessarily present in water.

One imagines the members of the EU panel as snotty 5-year-olds, keeping their fingers a bare traction of an inch from their sisters’ cheeks. “Stop touching me,” says the sister.  “I’m not touching you,” says the snotty younger brother.

Exploiting minor technicalities is a favorite tactic of over-regulators. I’m sure there are those who would argue with Landrieu over his dislike of certain excesses in historic preservation law, but their arguments would necessarily have to ignore practical reality in favor of some perfect world scenario where every project is financed and all municipal agencies are reasonable and competent.

However, if even a Democrat like Landrieu can admit that we are the collective victims of excessive laws and regulations, one wonders exactly why we continue to be so afflicted.

The answer, alas, is an institutional one. The sad reality is that legislators don’t make names for themselves by opposing new laws; they do so by spearheading legislation, often in response to some transient matter of public concern — a legislative fad, if you will. Overturning outdated laws doesn’t engender the same notoriety. That said, some laws are so oppressive and/or outdated that the public doesn’t want them enforced.  Thus, just because the Spinster’s Sewing League successfully fought and won a battle against the sale of ice cream on Sundays (an undeniable threat to public health end morals) back in the 1890’s, doesn’t mean we want police raids of Creole Creamery today.

The New Orleans City Code is no stranger to old, unenforced laws. The biggest offender is the Bicycle Code, which apparently mistook a Schwinn Cruiser for a Ford Econoline. Technically, bikes in the Big Easy are required to be registered with the city and have a registration plate affixed (they look like miniature license plates – I’ve seen one, once). Bikes are also required to have headlamps and bells or horns, and are subject to inspection for necessary equipment at the time of registration.

Of course, nobody follows these requirements, and no bikes lacking a registration plate wind up ticketed. The safety valve in the machinery of government is the wink-and-a-nod of sloth and inaction.

Though effective, this is a crude way of dealing with over-regulation. The laws are still on the books and available to police and prosecutors alike. We’re rapidly reaching a point where all you need is a prosecutor with a certain state of mind to put you in a world of trouble, regardless of what you’ve done.

Landrieu’s admission that government regulation is beyond the tipping point is a good start, but much more effort is needed to slay the leviathan of regulation we’ve created.  Otherwise, we’ll eventually go the way of Europe, banning companies from saying that water is wet.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

20 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: May I see your bicyclers’ license?

  1. RE; Your comments about the Mayor, you actually misrepresented the context of his remarks that he made at the Tulane Bipartisan Seminar, that is you took it out of context to make a partisan point. This my friend is the trouble with public discourse in the US today.

    • Phil Frady,

      Ok, how did I misrepresent “the context of his remarks?” I didn’t even reference the context. In point of fact, he was going over three things he identified as “political myths,” and one of those was that “there is not too much regulation.” I don’t see how that context affects the content of my piece, and you offer no explaination whatsoever.

      When you comment on a piece, it’s more appropriate to be specific and not just give some vague drive-by criticism. Otherwise, you’ll give nothing more than the kind of contentless criticism that “is the trouble public discourse in the US today.”

      • Actually if you read carefully and reflect on my comments you may understand that the context of Mitch’s remarks was how both the left and right have issues, he also gave specific examples as to the issues he was referencing. For anyone either left or right to than take his comments to make political points for their side is indeed unfortunate given the context, a bipartisan conference. is indeed unfortunate. I hope this clarifies things for you.

        • Phil,

          Then your criticism would only make sense if my column were a partisan screed — making “political points” for a “side.” However, since I was arguing a political issue and only made one passing reference to party ID, I still don’t see how your criticism has merit.

  2. I was just going to say New Orleans would actually benefit from enforcement of the old bicycle registration laws. As a member of one of the last generations who were compelled to register our bikes, and speaking as a victim of bicycle theft (twice in 20 years), I recognize registration as a multi-faceted tool in our crime-fighting arsenal. Registered bike stolen? NOPD stands a better chance of recovering it (or at least having “probable cause” when they spot it). Lying unconscious after a hit-and-run while cycling without ID? EMS can look you up. Lost bike found in a ditch? Calling in the tag reveals its owner. Et cetera, et cetera.
    In fact, I would argue that making the registration process even more stringent – namely by requiring a quick course in traffic safety and the wisdom of wearing a helmet – would lend meaning once again to this now-forgotten practice. Because who hasn’t cursed the adult, riding his unregistered bicycle, the wrong way against traffic without a light or head protection?? Or on a sidewalk? Give this guy a ticket, and he “learns” real fast to act right, and avoid being killed by (registered, safety-conscious, seatbelt-wearing, headlight-shining) automobile drivers.

    • Tim G,

      That’s all well and good, but you’re really proposing a return to a Byzantine bureaucracy designed to save people (in this case, bicyclists) from the consequences of their own reasoned choices. A safety conscious bicyclist will certainly wear a helmet, have a forward lamp and use a bell. However, those things also cost money and are inconvenient, so a bicyclist may opt to increase their personal risk and forgo such equipment, particularly if they only make short trips on side streets and despise helmet hair.

      Cars are different because they’re heavy machinery and pose a serious risk to other peoples’ lives. The bottom line is that an act so simple as riding a bike down the street shouldn’t require a municipal bureacracy behind it.

      • Doesn’t the public have an interest in decreasing the costs associated with scraping a bicyclist’s brains from the roadway? I think this is the idea behind bundling a small life insurance policy with your car insurance policy to get a lower rate? The auto insurance carrier won’t get tagged for the clean-up after your wreck (it will come out of your life insurance). But you don’t need any sort of insurance for riding a bike, which makes sense. Nevertheless, the costs associated with individual risk-taking are not limited to the individual.

        • counter,

          Doesn’t the public have an interest in decreasing the costs associated with scraping a bicyclist’s brains from the roadway?

          That’s a pretty small and inconsequential expense. And frankly, people who survive serious accidents are more likely to have expenses than those who are pulverized.

      • I’d like to chime in that my reason for not always wearing a helmet when cycling has little to do with “helmet hair,” but everything to do with extreme discomfort in summer heat. Adding discomfort to a healthy means of transport would persuade people to rely more exclusively on cars (thus adding to congestion, pollution, and an increasing lack of available parking for cars, even in front of one”s own house). Vehicles pose a far greater danger to public safety along the lines of accidents than bicycles.

        Another issue (not directly related to the reply I am following, but the general concept) is that if one argues safety as a reason for enforcing issues of self-revolving risk, then there would be no end to ‘nanny-law” regulations. Would not a pedestrian be safer walking around padded like a linebacker? Wouldn’t children be safer never being allowed to go outside the security of their abodes? The fact is that any life worth living involves some element of risk, although preferably only a reasonably minute one. There is never a guarantee that an accident won’t happen to anyone on this planet on any given day. but wise practices can drastically reduce the likelihood of such. Practices need not become laws, and are best left to educational and social venues to take root.

  3. I hope the guy above is joking. Having our city govt or NOPD spend time with bicycle training & licensing is probably the dumbest thing I’ve heard all day. Our city can’t even prevent or prosecute people that MURDER other people & you won’t bicycle laws strictly enforced. Gimme a break!!

  4. Good stuff. Especially as NOPD consistently views your bicycle as “community property” (an officer said this to me one time).

  5. Just another good example of why we need some folks on the city council to go through the city codes and get rid of a bunch of things that don’t work for the city. The idea of registering bicycles with the city is blatantly an ordinance to create an artificial revenue stream.

  6. Owen,
    The bicycle license is a regulation that will most likely never be enforced for sure but might be in other municipalities across the country. That is why its there.
    One thing that always perplexed me was the New Orleans snowball stand regulation that statees that they can only operate from April 1st through September 30th. This law prevents a snowball stand from operating between the months of October thru April 1. New Orleans is famous for snowballs. It was almost 85 degrees all week and if Hansen`s or Plum Street was open, I would have been ordering one of their delicacies. There is too much government regulation when it dictates operative rules of a business that you would only find in New Orleans!

  7. According to this article:

    The former law, enacted in 1987, required cyclists to pay $3 to register their bikes in a database maintained by the superintendent of police; in turn, cyclists received a registration plate to be attached to their bikes. The database was destroyed following Katrina and the ordinance suspended; without the means to store and register cyclist information or provide a plate, cyclists were not required to sign up.

    Troy Carter tried to re-instate the ordinance with increased fees in 2010 but this was withdrawn after many citizens and cycling advocacy groups protested.

    • Rob,

      The article is a bit inaccurate. The bicycle registration law is not a “former law.” It is law. It just isn’t being enforced. It wasn’t really enforced before Katrina either, although at least then they were maintaining the infrastructure for those who voluntarily registered.

  8. Hey Owen – Saw your gray truck illegally parked in a freight zone by Superior Grill a few days ago. Didnt you just criticize a police officer for illegally parking? Not right to condemn somebody for doing something wrong if you are going to turn around and do the same thing.

    Not trying to bash you – just making a point. We should hold ourselves to the same standards as we hold others. (which I felt was the point of your article on illegal parking)

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Missy,

      You’re wrong.

      I was not parked in a freight zone. The freight zone is between two signs in the middle of the block and is clearly marked as such. I was legally parked near the corner.

      In any event, there’s a difference between parking in a freight zone and blocking a fire hydrant.

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