By Bob Mionske
Posted May. 15, 2003
Here’s an odd one for ya: Can someone get their driver’s license revoked for cycling while drunk? Is it illegal and, if so, what can they do to you if you are caught riding while intoxicated?(
I have to admit that at first, I didn’t think this question was really all that applicable to readers of this column. But, the more I thought about it, the more relevant it seemed. For instance, I’m sure many cyclists have attended a summer barbecue by bike only to partake in all that is offered before riding home. Then there is former 7-Eleven rider Alex Stieda (the first North American to don the Yellow Jersey in the Tour de France), who used to organize something called the “So you think you’re tough” bicycle race in which participants had to consume a full beer every lap before continuing. Now, that race was held in British Columbia, and Canada is almost like a different country, so maybe that doesn’t count, eh?
I also personally recall at least one lightheaded and exciting ride home from a saloon at the end of a long hot day in the saddle. And then there is, of course, a site dedicated to this and other questions of excess at www.drunkcyclist.com and… well, enough said. (Actually, not enough said… a word of caution, don’t open that site at work or in front of your kids or mother, okay?)
At least eight states have determined that drunk cycling falls within their drunk driving statutes: California, Florida, Hawaii, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon and Pennsylvania. Only a few have said the opposite, including Washington State, Illinois and Louisiana.
Generally, the states that have determined that drunk bicycling is a crime have specific language in their vehicle codes applying their drunk driving law to bicycles or making drunk cycling a separate violation. Both Illinois and Louisiana relied on general statutory language.
Let’s compare two states that didn’t have specific language. Florida said drunk cycling is the same as drunk driving and Illinois didn’t. Why?
Both states start with our old and familiar friend, the “all rights and duties” clause:
(Illinois) “Every person riding a bicycle upon a highway shall be granted all of the rights and shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle . . . “
(Florida) “Every person propelling a vehicle by human power has all of the rights and all of the duties applicable to the driver of any other vehicle . . . “
Florida’s version is the current model traffic code language, Illinois’ is from the older, early 1980’s version. The same is true for their respective definitions of vehicle:
(Illinois) “Every device in, upon or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway, except devices moved for human power.”
(Florida)“Every device, in, upon or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway, excepting devices used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks.”
In Florida, a bicycle is a vehicle, while in Illinois a bicycle is treated as if it were a bicycle. Compare the judge’s decision in the two cases:
(Florida) “Had the legislature intended to exclude bicyclists, it could have made [the drunk driving law] applicable only to a “motor vehicle,” as the statutory definition of motor vehicles excludes bicycles.”
(Illinois) “There are two plausible interpretations of [the drunk driving law] when read in conjunction with the vehicle code: 1) Since [drunk driving] applies only to vehicles, its very nature precludes it from being applied to bicyclists; or 2) Since bicyclists are subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver, there is no impediment to applying [the drunk driving law] to bicyclists . . . We determine that the language of the relevant statutes is not sufficiently definite to give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what conduct is prohibited. In other words, there is no clear and express legislative intent.”
See what an incredible difference just a few words can make?
Can your license be revoked for drunk cycling?
Four states have heard court appeals where a bicyclist was both convicted of drunk bicycling and where the cyclist’s driver’s license was revoked: Hawaii, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Only Pennsylvania determined that a driver’s license could be revoked for a bicycling violation. The state’s commonwealth court said that:
“If a person has been convicted on three offenses as set forth in the vehicle code that were committed within a five year period, the Department of Transportation must revoke that person’s operating privilege. The fact that the definition of “operating privilege” uses the term “vehicle” rather than “motor vehicle,” clearly denotes that these terms are not limited to matters involving motor vehicles but all vehicles.”
On the other hand, a New Jersey court clearly stated the opposing argument when it upheld a cyclist’s conviction for drunk driving, but refused to suspend his driver’s license:
“The operator of a bicycle is under an obligation to stay off the roads when intoxicated. However, the penalty under [state law] insofar as it requires the forfeiture of the right to operate a motor vehicle, by its nature can have no application to violations involving the operation of bicycles. A cyclist is not prevented by a conviction of drunk operation of a bicycle from using his bicycle on the roads. Since no licensing system exists for bicycles, and no statutory provision indicates that the right to use the roads may be denied a bicyclist, there simply is no way to prevent a drunken bicyclist from repeating his offense.”
So, what’s the conclusion? It’s probably a legislative matter. Those states that put specific language in their code books prohibiting drunk cycling and permitting their license bureaus to revoke a drunk cyclist’s driver’s license will enforce it, and most of those that choose not to probably won’t.
If you are too intoxicated to drive a motorized vehicle, you probably should not ride a bicycle either. However, the idea of mounting a bike when you are too inebriated to drive a car is as old as the invention of motorized vehicles themselves and a Washington State court seemed to endorse this idea when it decided that a cyclist was not subject to the DUI provisions, explaining that drunk bicycling, in consideration of the lower traveling speeds and vehicle weight, in most cases, did not present the same risk to society.
(Research and drafting assistance provided by Bruce Epperson-law student-Nova Southeast University)