If you like beer and you like biking, you might be wondering whether you can call in for a few cold ones after a cycle without getting yourself into legal trouble.
Does it count as driving under the influence if you’re steering handlebars?
Before we begin, we’d like to point out something obvious. It’s never a good idea to control any method of transportation when you’re not totally sober, whether you think you’ll be fine or not.
It won’t just be you who pays the price if that’s not the case.
Regardless of where you’re living, we would always advise against heading out on your bike if you’ve had a drink, even just one.
It’s better to be safe than sorry, and you could live with the regret of doing so for the rest of your life.
Under The Influence - What Does It Mean?
Cyclists are supposed to be sober, as, just like driving, the act requires concentration, quick reflexes and a fast reaction time. Drugs and alcohol slow us down, changing our perception of time, speed and sound. Not a good mix with bikes!
Otherwise known as ‘driving while intoxicated’ (DWI) or ‘operating while intoxicated’ (OWI) respectively, if you’re out on the road (or the footpath, depending on how influenced you are) and drunk or high, then you’re headed to a DUI.
Whilst of course each state’s driving laws are different, their definition of a DUI is the same. Anyone driving in public found to have a blood alcohol level of .08% or above, or proven impaired by alcohol or drugs, is considered under the influence.
However, things become a little unclear after this, as some state laws only apply to motor vehicles, where others apply to anything that is able to move or transport someone. A few states do explicitly prohibit cycling under the influence, though.
Where the definition does not strictly apply to a motorized form of transportation, a bike usually counts. In these circumstances, the rider will be slapped with the same fine they’d receive if they were drunk-driving a car - as in California, for example.
Regardless, if you’re acting as though you’re under the influence of anything, officers are entitled and encouraged to stop and detain you, should they suspect you might be endangering yourself or another person.
Even if you aren’t then issued with a DUI, you could still be charged with public intoxication, or if your behavior is especially reckless, an endangerment offence. You can access an individual state’s website to find out its specific legislation here.
Punishments and Penalties
When you are caught and detained by the police for a suspected DUI, in most states you’ll receive the same punishment whether you’re driving or cycling. Even though the former is arguably more dangerous, the courts don’t see it that way.
Typical penalties include paying a fine, driver’s license suspension (if you have one), community service, evaluation or treatment for substance abuse and could even lead an Ignition Interlock Device*. Worst case scenario, you’re headed to jail!
Your first DUI conviction (and hopefully your last!) is considered a misdemeanor in most states. If your number of prior DUI convictions surpasses a certain number, or you caused harm to others by injury or death, then it could become a felony.
In the states that have more specific DUIs regarding infractions committed on bicycles, you could be looking at a lesser punishment. Where rules are tailored toward cyclists, it’s possible the police will impound your bike. Not worth it!
Where this is the case though, if you’re convicted of a bike DUI, this will usually count as a prior offence should you be found guilty again in the future. Basically, it doesn’t matter if you were cycling or driving when you’re caught a second time.
*An IID is essentially a breathalyzer test that is hooked up to your car’s ignition system. Your car is rendered incapable of starting until someone breathes into the tube and is proven to be stone cold sober, AKA has no alcohol on their breath.
Should The Laws Change?
As we briefly touched on, it might be the opinion of some that the legislation regarding DUIs should be totally different for cars and bikes. It could be said that one can do less damage with a bike than driving a huge, petrol powered vehicle, yes.
You could also argue that whilst a bike is going to be somewhat less harmful to other people, it’s far more likely for a cyclist to end up in an accident or killed than the driver or passengers of a vehicle. Riders are more of a danger to themselves!
That being said, those who choose to ride bikes are sharing the same roadways as car drivers, essentially committing the same act. If you’re considered intoxicated by the law, you’ll be held accountable to the same standards no matter what.
The response you’ll get to riding after a drink (or consuming any substance that impairs your ability to focus on the world around you) will differ from place to place. If you weren’t actively causing harm, you may walk away with just a stern talking to.
Perhaps the laws should be changed to more explicitly cover bikes, scooters and other manually operated vehicles, in order to make things clearer and ensure the same punishments are offered everywhere.
You could argue back and forth forever about whether driving under the influence and cycling under the influence are equally heinous acts or not. Maybe bikers are less capable of injuring others (as severely), and should receive a lesser offence.
Unfortunately, though, it’s unlikely that all 50 states (52 if you count Hawaii and Alaska!) are ever going to come together and agree on everything when it comes to legislation. Odds are the rules are always going to be different wherever you go.
Whatever you think, remember our advice from the start. A moment’s convenience for you could ruin your life - just walk, get a cab, even push your bike home if you have to. Be safe and street smart, always!