Bike Law University: Riding Under the Influence

Bicycling under the influence laws are very rare, often times leaving a gray area in the law. league-logo

In this edition of Bike Law University, we take a look at BUI laws and how they’re implemented across the country. BUI laws provide specific penalties for bicyclists that are found to be riding while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In most cases, BUI laws differ from Driving Under the Influence (DUI) laws by providing for less severe penalties and by not affecting a person’s driver’s license.

What are they?

When determining whether bicyclists are likely to be subject to DUI laws I used the following process:

1. Is there a bicycle-specific DUI-like statute? When there is a BUI statute that law will likely govern how intoxicated cyclists are treated, unless law enforcement officers choose to use more general public intoxication laws or the statute does not clearly prevent the DUI law from applying.

2. Is a bicycle a vehicle? Although bicycles are always given the rights and duties of vehicles, they are not always actually defined as vehicles. It is important to look at the vehicle definition in the state code in addition to the definition of bicycle.

3. Is the DUI statute written for all vehicles? Because the definition for vehicle is often very broad, DUI statutes are sometimes written for motor vehicles, rather than vehicles generally. In some states, the DUI law will alternatively specifically exclude vehicles moved solely by human power or provide for some other altered definition that more specifically targets motor vehicles.

4. Is there case law on the subject in this state? In my search of Google Scholar I found 18 states that have case law on the applicability of their DUI law to the bicyclists. The case law generally centers on two areas of interest: 1) whether bicyclists are by their nature exempt from all or part of the DUI law, and 2) whether the statutory language and intent precludes the application of the DUI law to bicyclists.

5. What is the most likely outcome of litigation on this subject if the law is not clear?In states that do not have case law on the subject, or where the only decisions are by lower level courts and are not definitive, I looked at the trends in interpretation by courts in other states. These trends of interpretation will be discussed below.

Click on the image for the full chart.

Why should you care?

There are several studies that support the idea that BUI is a safety problem, and specifically that “[a]lcohol-intoxicated riders are considerably more likely than sober cyclists to be severely injured or killed.” According to Peter Jacobsen and Harry Rutter in City Cycling, “[i]n one study in Portland, Oregon, although only 15 percent of killed and hospitalized adult cyclists had elevated blood alcohol levels, half of the adult cyclists with fatal injuries were intoxicated (Frank et al. 1995).” In another study: “Of 200 injured cyclists reviewed during a study at a regional trauma center in Austin, Texas, 40 either had measurably elevated blood alcohol levels or themselves reported having consumed alcohol.

The intoxicated cyclists were much more likely to have been injured at night or in the rain and to have been admitted to the hospital. Only 1 of the 40 (2.5%) alcohol-consuming cyclists had worn a helmet, compared to 44 percent of the others. Both cyclists who incurred severe brain injuries were intoxicated, and the average hospital care cost of the alcohol-consuming cyclists was twice that of their sober counterparts. (Crocker et al. 2010).” Beyond the dangers caused by alcohol intoxication, it seems likely that intoxication is associated with behaviors that otherwise increase the risks of injury while bicycling such as riding without a helmet, riding at night, and riding without proper reflective gear or lights.

That intoxicated cyclists are overrepresented amongst cycling fatalities should not be confused with the idea that BUI is a widespread problem within the bicycling community or that its reduction will dramatically improve roadway safety. Although, the mixing of bicycling culture and beer culture can be seen in many examples, from breweries organizing bike-themed festivals to bicycle concepts built around transporting beer, and, in some cases, bicycles are the transportation choice of persons who have lost their driver’s licenses due to DUI, there is little evidence to suggest that BUI is common. The evidence that does exist suggests that BUI is less common than other forms of intoxicated transportation.

In City Cycling, a study of over 1,000 traffic fatalities in England and Wales found that “of all road users killed … cyclists were the least likely to have consumed alcohol or drugs. Of the cyclists tested, 33 percent showed the presence of alcohol and/or drugs, compared to 55 percent of drivers, 52 percent of car passengers, 48 percent of motorcyclists, and 63 percent of pedestrians (Elliot, Woolacott, and Braithwaite 2009).” In addition, “More cyclists fatalities are due to intoxicated motorists than intoxicated cyclists (Kim et al. 2007).”

Doing a better job of recognizing and dealing with BUI can be part of a road safety agenda, but our current legal system does not seem to be equipped to deal with the issue. To be taken seriously as road users, with the same rights and responsibilities as the operators of motor vehicles, means that cyclists should avoid BUI. However, the potential harm of BUI is not readily comparable to the well documented dangers of DUI. The normalization of bicycles as a legitimate transportation mode does not mean that bicyclists should be fit into the pre-existing framework for motor vehicles, but that they should be treated with the same seriousness. BUI and DUI are separate public policy issues that deserve separate public policy responses.

Who has them?

Four states have BUI statutes that provide specific penalties for bicyclists found riding under the influence. In five states a statute exempts bicyclists from all or part of the state DUI statute. In the remaining 41 states the application of the state’s DUI laws may be unclear, unless controlling case law exists.In 24 other states, there is some reason to believe, based upon the language of the DUI statute, definition of a vehicle, or the interaction of the two, that the DUI law does not apply to bicyclists. In these states a bicyclist may still get in serious trouble for BUI, but it is likely that a bicyclist will be cited with another statute, such as disorderly conduct or drunk in public. In the remaining 21 states, and the District of Columbia, it is likely that bicyclists can be charged with DUI based upon the reasoning laid out previously in this post.

Where did they come from?

Driving under the influence is addressed in the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC) in