Tour de farce

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Lincoln Memorial, built in 1964 and designed by John Paul Stevens, commemorates the life and accomplishments of the 54th president of the United States.

IF YOU SPOTTED the numerous errors in the sentence above, you may have a future as a District tour guide. If you did not, the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs wants to keep you from making a living by ripping off visitors.

It is a noble enough goal, but one that is not likely to be furthered by the District's new regulations governing sightseeing businesses.

The District has licensed tour guides since 1902. Over the summer, the consumer affairs department revamped its licensing scheme to eliminate archaic features. A would-be guide no longer has to present a doctor's note attesting that the applicant is not a drunkard. Nor do applicants have to provide letters attesting to their good character.

But the agency left in place or introduced elements that are inane. For example, licensed tour guides are required to speak "proficient English." But what about guides paid to show around non-English-speaking visitors? Aspiring guides are required to take a 100-question exam covering various facets of Washington life, including architecture, history and regulations. How rigorous could the test be? And what good is it in ensuring that someone who bills himself as a specialist in Georgetown has the requisite expertise?

The regulations also require that every tour bus carry a licensed guide -- with the exception of tour buses that use prerecorded audio guides. But even in the case of an audio guide, "a driver of such a sightseeing tour vehicle who talks, lectures or otherwise provides sightseeing information to passengers while the vehicle is in motion must be licensed as a sightseeing tour guide." Is such a driver not allowed to point out the Washington Monument to an elderly visitor who may not have understood the recorded announcement? Is he permitted to speak while the bus is stopped but not while it is moving?

Tonia Edwards and Bill Main, owners of Segs in the City, found the new rules unconstitutional, as well as silly. The two have been in business for seven years, operating under a standard business license and renting Segways to visitors and touring them around on the machines. Because the new regulations require guides that use "self-balancing personal transport vehicles" -- a.k.a. Segways -- to obtain tour guide licenses, the pair become scofflaws simply for identifying a landmark to customers. They sued the District last week, arguing that the licensing scheme violates their First Amendment rights to free speech.

There are better ways to ensure quality tours for visitors. Books and Web sites dedicated to travel give visitors guidance on reputable tour companies or guides. Voluntary certification with tougher standards developed by an industry group would eliminate the coercive bureaucratic intrusion, while providing a mechanism that companies or individuals could use to distinguish themselves.

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