I recently received a question from an Elmira College student, who raised a very interesting – and often misunderstood – issue: bicycling while intoxicated.
Can riders be arrested like motorists?
Here is the question, edited for length:
I recently rode my bicycle to a local bar and had a glass of beer. The bartender cautioned me by saying, “You can still get a DWI on a bicycle.”
I have heard this before, and have witnessed family and colleagues get arrested for driving their cars while intoxicated. The consequences have been devastating emotionally, financially, and socially.
I expect bicycling will get more popular and become a necessity for some riders, so I envision our nation’s bicycling infrastructure will continue to grow in the future. What is the current law in New York State?
Here is my answer to the student:
As an avid cyclist, former President of the NY Bicycling Coalition, and Elmira bike crash lawyer, I can tell you that while bicycling while intoxicated is NOT a good idea, it is incorrect that you can be charged with BWI (Bicycling While Intoxicated in NY).
While in some states riding a bicycle under the influence of alcohol can lead to the same DWI charges as those a motorist could face, in New York you cannot be charged with a DWI for riding a bicycle while drunk. The legislature specifically defines the DWI law as applying to the operation of a “motor vehicle.”
Accordingly, if you are riding a bicycle, skateboard or any other non-motorized vehicle and have had one too many drinks, you cannot be charged with BWI.
However, as with all laws, some exceptions do apply. If you have altered your bike by installing a motor, you will not be exempt from New York DWI laws.
In addition, just because you are exempt from DWI laws when drinking and biking, does not mean that you will not face misdemeanor charges, such as public intoxication or some other form of public endangerment. Although these involve lesser charges with relatively minor punishments, they will nevertheless result in court costs and additional fines.
But as I said, if you choose to drink, the best policy is to err on the side of caution and not ride your bicycle in order to avoid any potential legal trouble and danger to both your own health and those of others on the road.
Thanks for reading, and please ride sober!