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Sacramento's bar-hopping cyclists risk tickets, too

The Sacramento Bee: Sacramento's bar-hopping cyclists risk tickets, too

By Sam McManis

Published: Thursday, May. 23, 2013
Last Modified: Tuesday, May. 28, 2013

On his third beer, entering that transition between warm glow and steady buzz, Kevin O'Connell wasn't ready to leave happy hour at the Pour House, a bar on Q and 19th streets in midtown Sacramento.

The A's game was in a rain delay, but he was deep in conversation with his friend, Lubertus Abraham Mallard. They were slagging on midtown hipsters, whom Mallard dismissed as "single-speed (bike) guys in all black with messenger bags that don't carry any messages."

But when O'Connell, 36, eventually would pay his tab and head home to F Street, he planned to use his bicycle, locked in the rack out front, as his means of transport.

"I live on the other side of town," he said. "And I think it's a very responsible thing to do. I drive an SUV and if I drove that home, then that would be a terrible decision. I take the bike. I think it's totally safe, a lot safer than driving."

Then he quaffed a goodly amount from his pint of pale ale and added, sardonically: "What I'd really like to see is a bike trail that goes directly from here to F and 26th (near his house). That would be sweet."

Presumably, O'Connell made it home safely that night. But he said he was well aware that California Vehicle Code 21200.5 prohibits riding a bicycle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The punishment: a $250 fine and a misdemeanor conviction on your record, but no jail time.

It is, apparently, a risk he's willing to take. And judging by the locked lines of bikes – everything from beach cruisers to single-speed fixies to $3,000 road bikes – routinely seen in front of midtown nightspots, others do the same, especially with the warm summer months upon us.

Midtown Sacramento denizens say bicycling often is the most convenient and quickest mode of transport, given the parking headaches and occasional traffic gridlock on the grid.

But there's also another reason some bar-hoppers hop on their bikes: They feel there's less of a chance to get pulled over for a DUI, or, in this case, a BUI.

Sacramento police wrote 21 crime reports from 2007 through 2012 involving bicycle DUIs in midtown and downtown, about one report every three months, according to a Bee review of police data. (J Street is the most common location for bicycle DUIs, with six reports from 2007 to 2012.)

During that same period, Sacramento police wrote about 2,700 crime reports involving vehicle DUIs in midtown and downtown.

"I feel like, as long as you're not swerving into traffic, the cops are going to leave you alone," said Chris Keeton, 25, during a happy hour at the Golden Bear on K Street. "Riding gets the heart rate up and burns the alcohol a little faster."

That so few BUI crime reports have been filed in midtown might lead some to conclude pedaling after imbibing is tacitly approved by police.

It is most assuredly not.

Drunken bicycling is a major public safety and legal concern, police and bike advocates say.

"It's nice to see people out re-creating and going to entertainment spots on their bicycles," Sacramento Police spokesman Officer Doug Morse said. "However, if someone's going to over- indulge and operate any sort of vehicle – and bicycle is considered a vehicle – there's inherent dangers that exist. You put yourself and others at risk."

The risks can be fatal. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 23 percent of cyclists who died on the road in 2011 nationally had blood-alcohol concentrations of .08 grams per deciliter, a 2 percent rise from 2010. (2012 figures have yet to be released.)

Jim Brown, executive director of the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, said it tarnishes the reputation of law-abiding cyclists when those under the influence weave in bike lanes or ignore stop signs or lights.

"I don't want to sound like Big Brother here, wagging my finger, but it's an issue people need to be aware of," Brown said. "There are at least three or four other people affected other than the (drunken) bike rider. The friends you're riding with are at risk. You can knock them down or push them into traffic if you're not able to control your bike.

"There's also the risk of hitting pedestrians. You already have a lot of (sober riders) lax at stopping at stop signs and lights, and you get a couple of pitchers of beer into somebody, and they are even less likely to observe even basic traffic laws."

Not all nightlife-seeking bike riders are as cavalier as O'Connell about drinking and riding. His friend Mallard, 25, said he now walks home after imbibing.

He learned, he said, the hard way.

"I've actually busted my kneecap and (scraped) my chin riding my bicycle drunk," he said. "I admit it. It's not safe to ride when you're extremely inebriated.

"There's no way to distinguish how many (drinks) is too many, unless you get on your bike and notice you're not as agile. Once you learn to ride a bike, you never forget how to ride a bike. But if you temporarily forget how to ride, then that's your clue you're too inebriated to ride."

Morse said Sacramento police officers use the same diagnostic and visual criteria for determining potential BUI infractions as they do with DUIs.

Midtown resident Alex Espinoza, 26, just recently moved to the area. He said that when not needing his SUV for his work commute, he exclusively rides a bike around midtown, downtown and east Sacramento while bar-hopping with friends.

"A few times, I've had a few (too many) beers and had to leave my bike behind until (the next day)," Espinoza said. "I've seen some bad accidents involving bikes, and I'd prefer not to be that guy. There have been times when I've had to tell my friends, 'I think we need to hang out here a minute more, drink some water, get hydrated' before we go."

What motivates Espinoza to bicycle to bars has little to do with fears of a DUI, he said.

"On the bike, you're much more agile if you go bar- hopping," he said. "It's a lot easier to go from one to another. No parking trouble."

To that end, some midtown bar owners have catered to bike commuters with specials and expanded bike racks. Kimio Bazett, who owns the Golden Bear, said he paid "several thousand dollars" to have special "wavy snake" bike racks installed to accommodate more cyclists.

"In summer, we get flooded with (cyclists), especially if there's a pub crawl or event," Bazett said. "(Bikes) are lined up on every signpost down the block."

Bazett said he trains his bartenders not to "overserve" customers, even if they are bike riders.

Likewise, at the Monkey Bar on Capitol Avenue, bartender Paul Broderick said weekends are a veritable weigh station for cyclists, both the Lycra-clad types and the college students on cruisers. He finds, anecdotally, that bike riders tend not to overindulge.

"We get a lot of guys in unitards, sitting out there (on the porch) sipping a pitcher (of beer). They're here for 20 minutes, drink and then they're gone."

Back at the Pour House, O'Connell was getting as lubricated as Lance Armstrong's bike chain. He defended his drinking and riding.

"I'd lobby heavily for (people) to be able to ride their bikes around with a decent buzz on," he said. "If I'm riding a beach cruiser, I'm not endangering people. I'm not riding on the sidewalk, only bike lanes, and I (use) lights and reflectors. It's all good."

A few minutes later, as the A's game resumed, O'Connell lifted his forearm to reveal an inch-long scar, remnants from a nasty gash.

"Yeah, I did it slamming home on my bike one night," he said. "I'm screwing up my own point, aren't I?"


DRINKING AND CYCLING

• California Vehicle Code section 21200.5 states, in part: "It is unlawful for any person to ride a bicycle upon a highway while under the influence of an alcoholic beverage or any drug, or under the combined influence of an alcoholic beverage and any drug. ... A conviction of a violation of this section shall be punished by a fine of not more than two hundred fifty dollars ."

• Number of crime reports for bicycling under the influence in downtown and midtown Sacramento 2007-12: 21.

• Number of crime reports for driving under the influence in the same areas in the same period: 2,700.

• Number of cyclists killed in traffic accidents nationally in 2011, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: 677.

• Number of cyclists killed in traffic accidents nationally in 2011 who had blood alcohol concentration of .08 or greater: 210.

– Sam McManis and Phillip Reese