In 2006, the South Dakota State Legislature passed a law making it legal for people on bicycles (and horses!) to ride while under the influence of alcohol—because they wanted to discourage people from driving their cars home after drinking too much, and encourage “safer” options like riding their bikes or horses home.
Some states do apply their DWI laws to bicyclists, who are therefore subject to the same criminal penalties and heavy fines as automobile operators. Other states, like California, have laws separate from their DWI statutes declaring that bicycling under the influence is a misdemeanor offense, and subjecting violators to a fine, and a possible suspension of their drivers’ licenses. A few other states allow police to pick up drunken cyclists and transport them to a safe place without charging them with a crime.
New York state has no law against, and therefore no penalties for, bicycling while intoxicated—so you cannot be charged with a DWI-type crime for drinking and biking. The exception is if you have altered your bike by attaching a motor—making it, legally, a “motor vehicle,” and subjecting you to the full weight of New York’s DWI laws.
So, if you live in New York state, and don’t want to worry about a criminal DWI charge—or the major fines, suspensions, and life interruptions that come with it—you can ride your bike to and from the bar. But is that such a good idea?
Even in the Netherlands, where bicycling is a way of life and it is common for young people to pedal home after a night out, a national discussion on the subject arose from a recent study showing that two-thirds of young people admit to cycling under the influence, and that 50 percent of young Dutch bicyclists involved in weekend-night crashes have consumed alcohol. Here in the United States, nearly 25 percent of all bicycling deaths involve an intoxicated rider.
Bicycling advocates are quick to point out that the presence of alcohol doesn’t mean the crash was the cyclist’s fault, and that the single greatest peril facing bike riders on US roads is the negligence of motor-vehicle operators. Still, with bicycling’s growing popularity, and communities’ increasing accommodation to cycling culture (bike-only lanes, ride-sharing programs, etc.), a little common sense is in order when considering biking as an alternative to driving home from a night out.
Be aware that intoxicated cyclists are more likely to take unnecessary risks, like not wearing a helmet or riding recklessly. They are more likely to have trouble with balance, steering straight ahead, and concentrating on more than one task and/or field of vision. Alcohol also decreases reaction time.
Driving while intoxicated is neither a smart nor a safe option, and can land you in big trouble. But bicycling under the influence isn’t particularly safe either. There are other options: depending on the hour, public transportation (and some communities offer late-night shuttles on weekends); taxicab or Uber; and that idea whose time never went away, the designated driver.