Monday 6 October 2014

How dangerous is it to cycle under the influence of alcohol or drugs?

Summary: Candid, pragmatic advice about cycling under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a topic rarely discussed in official cycling safety information, except to say: "don't do it." This isn't particularly helpful as one of the benefits of cycling in cities is that you can become a "superpedestrian" - able to access and fit in even more activities, destinations and social opportunities. In fact, cycling after drinking is becoming increasingly popular due to the advantages of biking for getting around. Unfortunately, the crashes and injuries are also increasing rapidly. Unlike with DUI motorists, "cycling under the influence" (CUI) is primarily a risk to yourself, thus you will likely need to regulate your own behaviour as the police typically won't be. This post will aim to provide the lowdown on the risks and practicalities of cycling after you've been drinking alcohol or taking other substances that may affect your normal awareness, judgement and bike handling.

Flickr CC by 2.0 - megan ann

Related Posts:
> See the safety and health category of this blog.

1. Cycling Under the Influence (CUI) is typically not illegal in most cities or not generally enforced. In Melbourne (or cities with similar laws) you will never be stopped by police for random breath testing but if obviously intoxicated can be stopped for a sobriety test
- In Australian states, there are no specific laws relating to cycling under the influence (CUI) - also known as biking under the influence (BUI) or drunk biking or drunk riding. Thus the only question is whether the DUI laws intended for motor vehicles or all general road users apply to cyclists. (Some localities laws will be similar but you'll need to check your own state laws).

- In Victoria where I live the technical laws are as described below:
The relevant provisions of the RSA (i.e. pt 5) relating to drink-driving refer to motor vehicles and, accordingly, do not apply to cyclists – as such, cyclists cannot lose demerit points for cycling while under the influence of alcohol. However, there is an archaic and very poorly drafted offence in the Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic) (s 16(b)) that imposes a maximum penalty of 10 pu or two months imprisonment if you are drunk in charge of a carriage (not including a motor vehicle) in a public place. “Carriage” is not defined but would likely include a bicycle.
The Law Handbook: Bicycle-specific laws
(In Victoria) police do not have the power to breathalyse cyclists, but Sergeant Lavos said they can charge riders they suspect of being drunk. Depending on how intoxicated a cyclist is, they can be charged with being drunk while in charge of a carriage (maximum penalty two months' jail and $1134.20 fine) or can receive a $57 on-the-spot fine.
The Age: Don't get on your bikes, drunks warned
- Cycling-specific laws, and whether laws relating to vehicles cover bikes, vary considerably across countries and states. Hence, you need to check the specific laws for your location (typically state). For example, in Oregon and Washington states in America, you can lose your driver's licence for biking under the influence. (See: U.S. Bike League: State Bike Laws)
How to avoid cycling fines with minimum inconvenience
Bike Portland: Bike Law 101 - Biking under the influence

ABC News: Random breath tests

2. Cyclists typically ride after drinking for practical reasons. However, there are practical alternatives to riding under the influence
- RideOn magazine surveyed 125 Australian cyclists and got these answers:
One of the top reasons for soused riders to jump on their bike was because they felt riding was safer than driving, as the only person they risked hurting was themselves. Many said it was safer than waiting alone for a taxi, walking home in the dark or catching public transport late at night. Riders were reluctant to leave their bikes overnight for fear it would be stolen. They also saw it as the quickest, cheapest and easiest option because taxis, as well as being expensive, were difficult to find on busy nights. Public transport was too unreliable, they said, and it was inconvenient or didn’t run late enough so people could get home without their bike. Perhaps worryingly, a number of riders admitted they did it because it was ‘fun’, while others believed it was legal.
RideOn Magazine: Risky business
- I have noted a few practical alternatives to these reasons for CUI below, but generally the best alternative is not to cycle under significant influence by consuming less alcohol/drugs or leaving more time to sober up. The more adversely impacted you are by alcohol/drugs the more critical it is to find practical alternatives.

Reason for CUIPractical alternative
Cycling is safer than driving CUI is definitely safer for others than DUI but it isn't safe for the rider. DUI should never be the alternative, but for your own safety, you should seek alternatives to CUI.
Risk of bike theft or damage if you leave bike behindUse 1 or more quality locks (U lock, chain) and ride a "beater/bar bike" for such trips
How to prevent your bike being stolen
Inconvenient to leave bike behindUse a folding bike for trips when you're drinking. You can then put it in a taxi, on transit or in a friend's car.
Taxis/Uber costs too muchRide one way and taxi back. Leave earlier to use transit. Split taxis and walk part of the way.
Other transport options take too long or aren't as easy- If you insist on significant alcohol/drug intake then longer or less convenient transport may be the only safe way home.
- You could always consume less or sober up earlier or before you ride
Other transport options are hard to accessIt may be safer to ride/walk to an alternate transport option (e.g. train/bus) than ride all the way home
Other transport options have greater risks of assaultTravel with others or leave earlier when it's safer.
It's fun to ride under the influence- It can be fun but the factors that make it more fun (affecting the brain) also make it much more dangerous (worse awareness, judgement and motor control; greater risk tolerance).
- If you really want these thrills, get them on an off-road cycle track/path when no-one else is at risk.
CUI is legalIF it is legal (it often isn't) this is not an indication that CUI is safe for the rider, only much safer than DUI for the public.
If cycling is the best option, CUI is necessaryGiven CUI is definitely dangerous for the rider (see below) you should aim to consume less alcohol/drugs and leave sufficient time to sober up before cycling.
> The Tyee: Drunk cycling in the city

3. How dangerous for the rider is cycling under the influence of alcohol or other drugs? What is a safe-enough alcohol level?
- Essentially, my reading of the research, anecdotes and my own experience indicates that CUI poses even more risk of crashing to the rider as DUI does to the driver. In Australia, the legal DUI blood alcohol limit for non-probationary drivers is 0.05. Thus cyclists should take a similar approach for CUI - the lower the better and one should aim to stay under the DUI limit given that the relative risk increase is at least as much.

- However, the key issue is that the baseline risk varies enormously for cycling trips in different circumstances. A Dutch cyclist, riding fully-separate cycle tracks 1km home on a well-known route that involves no interactions with vehicles, can generally afford the relative risk increase of cycling with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 (possibly even higher). A New York cyclist, riding bike-unfriendly roads 10km home on an unfamiliar route that involves many types of interactions with vehicles, typically can't afford the relative risk increase of cycling with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 (0.02 may even be too risky).

- Blood testing of cyclists involved in crashes where they've died or been seriously injured indicates that, where the baseline risk of a serious crash is not insignificant, the elevated risk is worth careful consideration and mitigation:
Transport Accident Commission figures suggesting up to six cyclists killed on our roads in the past three years may have been drinking. Two of the cyclists had blood alcohol levels over .05 and another had alcohol in his system, but his reading was under .05. A TAC spokeswoman said a further three cyclists killed may have been drinking but blood samples had not been supplied to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine for testing, most likely because the riders died in hospital from their injuries some time after the accident. Countless others are believed to have been injured while riding drunk. According to US researchers, a single standard drink increases the risk of death or serious injury to cyclists by five times, and having five drinks before riding your bike increases the risk 20 times.
The Age: Don't get on your bikes, drunks warned
New York city’s health department conducted blood-alcohol tests on the bodies of 176 of the 225 cyclists killed in accidents between 1996 and 2005. Of the 84 tests considered valid — some were done too late — 18 cyclists were found to have drunk before their crashes, according to the study, released last year, though it was unclear how much.
NY Times: Spokes | Tipsy on Two Wheels
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.
Huffington Post: Bicycling Under the Influence: What's the Harm?
- Of course, most cycling crashes influenced by alcohol consumption are minor, but they do reveal the effect CUI has on incident rates. Just as most people have walked after drinking and had a minor stumble/fall, so too do many cyclists. For cyclists, the minor incidents are often due to low risk circumstances in which they consider CUI safe enough and the risk mitigation steps they take (e.g. slower speeds).
In the Ride On survey, 16.1% of respondents said they had been injured while riding drunk, though less than 3% sought medical attention and none required time off work. This would seem to indicate that the incident rate is relatively low.
RideOn Magazine: Risky business
- While some safety-focused videos/apps likely err on the conservative side in their simulations, it may be of interest to review the potential effect alcohol can have on cycling skills.
Addiction Treatment Magazine: If I Drink App
> TAC: Effects of Alcohol

Addiction Treatment Magazine: If I Drink App

4. If you are going to cycle under the influence then use methods that maximise your safety. Learn from how experienced cyclists drink in moderation.
- If you are going to cycle after consuming alcohol or drugs and before having fully sobered up, then there are sensible steps you can take to minimise the risk of serious crashes or injury:

CUI risk mitigation methodRationale and explanation
Consume less alcohol/drugs and sober up effectively before riding- This is by far the most important risk mitigation.
- Consume less alcohol/drugs and leave sufficient time to sober up before cycling.
- Consciously take steps to sober up and become alert before riding (drink water, eat, freshen up).
Take the safest routes (least vehicle interaction)It may take a little longer or be less convenient but prioritise the safest routes
Reduce vehicle interactionUse off-road paths and back streets to reduce interaction with vehicles. 
Use effective lights and maximise your visibilityIf riding in low visibility, using effective bike lights and being as visible as possible is even more critical when CUI
Ride with others- Using lights and riding with others may enable you to take off-road or quieter routes
Reduce intersection risks- Don't try and dash across intersections just in time
- Use "hook turns" or pedestrian crossings to cross risky intersections
Use familiar routesPrioritise familiar routes as your prior experience helps when CUI
Ride slower and more defensively and patiently- Slower speeds can significantly reduce crash risk and consequences
- Defensive riding techniques are even more critical when CUI
Consciously focus and pay attention- Eliminate distractions like listening to music, chatting to others, looking around.
- Force yourself to pay close attention to traffic and intersections
Wear a helmet if feasible- Even if you don't normally wear a helmet consider wearing one after drinking. The risks of crashing and falling are significantly higher when CUI.
Pay extra attention to pedestrians- When CUI, you have extra responsibility to ensure the safety of others, especially pedestrians. Cyclists have killed and injured pedestrians when CUI and been charged.
Don't do silly things you normally wouldn't- E.g. Ride with no hands, one hand or in risky ways. Give others a lift if not experienced at it.

- I apply all of the above methods to reduce my own risk of injury when riding after drinking, but primarily the first one - consuming less alcohol. (I imagine most experienced cyclists over 35 are the same.) As I virtually always cycle everywhere and plan on always cycling home, I don't get drunk before riding home. Drinking to excess is overrated and, if you need an excuse, having to ride home is an excellent one. I enjoy social drinking and can freely go anywhere on a night out without dependence on cars or public transport. But not getting drunk means no accidents while getting around or going home, no hangovers, no wasted next days and a much healthier lifestyle.

5. Learn from your own and other's mistakes when cycling under the influence
- The most effective way to improve your cycling safety is to learn from your own mistakes. The next most effective is to learn from other's mistakes. For general riding, documented learnings look like this: Actual cycling accident history proves how safe it can be

- The types of incidents, mistakes made and elevated risks when CUI are a specific sub-set of learnings you can pick up from your own experience, your friend's stories and articles (including the trailing comments) about CUI such as those linked in this post and below.
NY Times: Riding Away From a Bar Crawl With Citi Bikes
NY Times: Spokes | Tipsy on Two Wheels
After leaving a San Francisco bar, Tam McGlinchey straddled his bike and headed home. For this dedicated bicycle commuter, cycling felt almost as familiar as walking. And because he adores obscure imported ales, cycling while sloshed felt pretty familiar, too. The city's scenery flashed past. Approaching a road rutted with streetcar channels, McGlinchey told himself: Steer clear. But his reflexes wouldn't obey. His front wheel jammed in the narrow metal groove. He flew off his bike. Asphalt sheered away strips of his skin as he slid.
The Daily Beast: Biking While Drunk
72pac says:
December 3, 2013 at 3:17 pm
I will think twice about riding home drunk after losing traction in the rain turning from the slippery stone pavement into the college st cycleway. It wouldn’t have been too bad if I hadn’t smashed my thumb between the handlebar and the road, needing an operation and a couple of wires to hold it back together.
RideOn Magazine: Risky business - Comments
Further Info:
NY Times
Spokes | Tipsy on Two Wheels
Riding Away From a Bar Crawl With Citi Bikes

Huffington Post
Bicycling Under the Influence: What's the Harm?

Bike Portland
Drunk biking: No big deal, or time to get real?

The Daily Beast
Biking While Drunk

ScienceLine: The dangers of drunk biking

Holland Cycling
Dutch cyclists under influence

Dutch News
Many late night cyclists break ‘drunk in charge of a bike’ rules

I Quant NY: Where’s the Most NYC Nightlife? Just ask Citi Bike

The Federalist: Bring Equality To The Road

How We Drive: Friends Don’t Let Friends Walk Drunk
The Perils of Drunk Walking: Full Transcript