Bicyclists are taking to the streets and roadways in cities across America in growing numbers. Whether the decision to use two wheels instead of four is driven by a desire to help clean up the environment, have fun, save money or get healthier, the fact is that bicycles, cars and people are increasingly sharing the same geography -- and not always safely.
The laws against drunk driving are fairly clear. Most people know the dangers and have seen the campaigns warning the public of the consequences. But what about bicycling under the influence?
It's an issue many people (and legislators) take lightly. In fact, there are bike pub crawls and other events in cities nationwide that actually encourage people to get wasted and head home on bicycle rather than car. Certainly, when compared to drunk driving, bicycling under the influence is the lesser evil. But why do so many states fail to address this important safety issue at all?
Disparity in State Laws
There is wide disparity in state bicycling laws, especially with regard to bicycling under the influence. Some states apply their existing laws against drunk driving to drunk bicycling, with the same criminal penalties such as jail time and significant fines. By sharp contrast, South Dakota law makes bicycling under the influence legal in an effort to encourage people who have had too much to drink to use a bike rather than drive a car.
Some states have specific laws that prohibit intoxicated bicycling. California law, for example, declares it unlawful to ride a bike on any public road while under the influence of alcohol and/or any drug. This offense -- a misdemeanor that carries a maximum fine of $250 -- is separate from the driving under the influence law related to motor vehicles. While it is clearly a less serious offense than driving under the influence, cycling under the influence may result in having a criminal conviction on record. Riders under the legal drinking age may get a one-year court-imposed driver's license suspension.
In the state of Washington, police officers can stop bicyclists who appear to be intoxicated and transport them to a safe place, but they cannot arrest them for riding under the influence. Similarly, in Arizona, which does not yet regulate bicycling under the influence, police officers can take a rider into protective custody if they think the bicyclist is too intoxicated to ride safely. Even in states with no laws against bicycling under the influence, drunken cyclists may be arrested for other offenses such as public intoxication and disorderly conduct.
The Dangers of Bicycling Under the Influence
Although states have taken dramatically different regulatory approaches, the dangers of bicycling under the influence are well-documented. Nationally, nearly 25 percent of bicycling deaths involve an intoxicated rider. Studies show that drunken bicyclists are less likely to wear helmets and more likely to take unnecessary risks, increasing the likelihood of being severely injured or killed. In a study by Johns Hopkins University, researchers found that having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level at or above the legal limit (.08) raises a bicyclist's risk of serious injury by 2,000 percent.
Just one alcoholic drink can impair vision, judgment, muscle coordination and other critical skills when riding a bike. Even at .02 (roughly one drink), cyclists were six times more likely to be injured.
In many ways, riding a bike requires greater physical coordination and psychomotor skills than driving a car. People who ride a bike under the influence have difficulty balancing and navigating in traffic. They tend to concentrate on one task and neglect others in a divided task situation, such as steering the bike straight ahead or staying upright and obeying traffic signals. Alcohol also decreases reaction time. By the time drunken bicyclists realize they're dangerously close to a speeding car, it could already be too late.
Ride the Bike, Skip the Alcohol
Wonder how alcohol could impact your ability to ride a bike? A new interactive simulated drinking app "If I Drink..." provides a first-person virtual experience that shows just how severely alcohol can affect your ability to ride a bike, as well as drive a car or walk the line at different BAC levels, ranging from sober to extremely intoxicated. The app also describes the potential legal consequences based on current state law.
Bicycling is up by about 40 percent nationwide. As more people replace the fast lane with the bike path, we're likely to see more intoxicated riders as well as more police officers enforcing laws against them. Regardless of the law in your state, one fact remains true everywhere: Drinking alcohol and bicycling is a dangerous mix.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes Promises, The Ranch, Journey, and Lucida Treatment Center.