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Kids on motorcycles – what makes sense?

A proposed new law on the books will prohibit children younger than 14 from riding as passengers on motorcycles.

Published November 8, 2008
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A proposed new law on the books will prohibit children younger than 14 from riding as passengers on motorcycles.

This may sound reasonable, but even the Canada Safety Council thinks it's a bad idea.

Some background: Ontario Bill 117 is in the initial stages of new legislation, having been given its first reading as a private member's bill in the Legislature late last month.

The bill was put forward by Helena Jaczek, MPP for Oak Ridges-Markham, whose heart is undoubtedly in the right place after somebody questioned the safety of children on motorcycles.

"Every life is precious and particularly that of a child," she told me.

She asked her staff to research the issue and found that almost 200 motorcycle passengers under age 15 were injured in the decade up to 2005, a dozen of them under 5 years old.

"The legislation is silent on the topic of motorcycle passengers," she said.

"It just seemed one of those relatively small areas in which a private member's bill can be useful in terms of public education."

But the legislation is not silent. It is very clear. Regulation 596, subsection 10(3) of Ontario's Highway Traffic Act states: "A person who is a passenger on a motorcycle operated on a highway and who is occupying the seat referred to in clause (2) (b) shall sit astride the seat in such a manner that his or her feet are placed upon the foot rests referred to in clause (2) (b)."

So the law says that the passenger's feet must reach the footrests. This is sensible, since feet on footrests allow a passenger to grip and balance, instead of just perch on the seat.

Those dozen children under 5 years old already have a law that might have protected them. Further legislation would do them no good. And there is no statistical breakdown to show how many of those 199 children were joy-riding dirtbikes at the cottage or with teens on stolen motorcycles, rather than sharing a sedate ride with a responsible parent.

"We do know that the injuries were mostly related to falling off the motorcycle," said Jaczek. "In other words, not a collision with another vehicle."

The Canada Safety Council, however, did some research of its own and has a different take on the matter.

"I've been riding for 35 years and have never seen a 4-year-old on a motorcycle," said Raynald Marchand, program general manager for the national charitable organization.

"We've found that young children are probably transported (on motorcycles) by their parents, and they're typically on short rides and the parents are very careful about it. This is a solution looking for a problem."

He said he's asked about requirements for children on motorcycles a half-dozen times every year. Almost invariably, he says, the inquiry comes from a parent whose child is riding with their former spouse.

Marchand suggested that the injured toddlers were most likely children burned by the hot exhaust pipes of a motorcycle parked in the driveway.

"It happened to my neighbour – (the child) was wearing shorts and touched the motorcycle. It meant a visit to the emergency room."

I asked Jaczek how she determined the appropriate age to be 14, and she said that it's based on when most children reach their adult height. "The key thing is being able to reach those footrests and having a level of judgment in terms of hanging on," she explained.

Unfortunately, most children can ride safely on mom or dad's motorcycle at a much earlier age, and this opportunity could be taken from them by a misinformed piece of unnecessary legislation that just might slip through unnoticed.

Nowhere else in North America does such a law exist. Not in Canada, and according to the American Motorcyclist Association, only four states – Arkansas, Hawaii, Washington and Louisiana – have a minimum age requirement, varying between 8 and 5 years old.

My youngest son, now 9, has only in the last year been able to reach the footrests and ride with me. I consider him to be secure and safe. More to the point, my wife agrees.

My eldest son, who is now 11 and has been riding with me quite securely since his feet could comfortably reach the passenger footrests, would have this pleasure taken from him.

This summer, we rode together on a couple of adventurous journeys to his grandmother's house near Ottawa, and to New York City.

Never once was his age or young attitude a liability as a passenger. Indeed, he embraced the responsibility and we had some wonderful bonding experiences.

This is, of course, riding on a comfortable Harley-Davidson with a back rest and luggage, and an experienced operator. I wish my own first experience had been so sedate.

No – my first ride on a motorcycle was as a wide-eyed 13-year-old, on the back of my sister's boyfriend's Suzuki GS750.

I held onto the seat strap between us as he rocketed that bike between traffic at 200 km/h. It was terrifying. Legislation against speeding was there to protect me, but the cops didn't catch us.

This issue might be seen as a tempest in a teapot, affecting a small proportion of the population, except it's indicative of the recommendations of well-meaning but misinformed citizens that get passed into law before anyone notices they're foolish.

Once law, they're difficult to repeal.

"We don't want a nanny state," said Marchand.

"We have to be sure that what we do makes sense to the citizen, otherwise the citizen is going to lose faith in the system. We're going to start making a lawbreaker out of every citizen."

The second reading of Bill 117 is scheduled for Dec. 4, and if it passes that, it will be debated by committee. If unopposed, it could perhaps become law by spring.

If you oppose this, write to your MPP and make your feelings known.

Mark Richardson is the editor

of Wheels. He can be reached at

mrichardson@thestar.ca