Rules of the Road

Biking home from a bar is the legal choice to make, but is it the smart one?

Bicycles sit chained to a bicycle rack in front of Boundary Bay Brewery on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016 in Bellingham.
Bicycles sit chained to a bicycle rack in front of Boundary Bay Brewery on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016 in Bellingham.

Question: With the upsurge of breweries in town, I have seen more clearly intoxicated bike riders leaving local breweries. Is there a rule about riding your bike while intoxicated?

Answer: This is a great example of, “Dumb is not the same as illegal.” In Washington, it is not a crime to ride a bike while drunk. The Revised Code of Washington specifically addresses this issue, making it clear that the role of law enforcement is limited, in most instances, to offering assistance to an impaired cyclist. Some states make it a crime to cycle impaired, but not us.

In ascending order of intrusiveness, I’ll list the options available to an officer who encounters a drunk cyclist.

Option one: Offer the cyclist a ride. If the bike rider is on a public road, an officer can offer to give the cyclist a ride to a safe place, or to get the cyclist into the company of a “competent person.”

The law doesn’t define what it means by “competent person,” and that seems like a fairly subjective term. I think the goal here is to connect the bike rider with a friend who will make sure to get him or her home without anyone getting hurt. The cyclist can refuse the offer from the officer. If the assistance is refused, the law makes it clear that any resulting consequence the cyclist experiences is not the responsibility of the officer.

Option two: If the cyclist refuses assistance, but the officer believes the cyclist presents a likely threat to public safety, the officer can impound the bicycle. The bike owner is given a written notice of when and where the bicycle can be reclaimed, and there is no cost to the cyclist to reclaim the bike. The only stipulation is that the person picking up the bike must not appear intoxicated.

Because impoundment, by definition, involves taking another person’s property, and property rights are held in high regard by our constitution, this option is limited to situations where the officer has no other reasonable alternative.

Option three: If the cyclist “has threatened, attempted, or inflicted physical harm on himself, herself, or another” the officer can take the bike rider into protective custody.

This option might be the right choice for a cyclist who is clearly intoxicated and already has sustained injuries from a crash but refuses help, insisting to continue traveling by bike. It would not be used if the officer just has a gut feeling that things might turn out bad.

I think we can agree that any time someone rides a bike while drunk, things might turn out bad. Protective custody is not an arrest and does not create a criminal record. A person in protective custody is taken to a hospital or treatment center and held there for a limited time to ensure his or her safety.

Of course, there also is the option to only cycle while sober. Why is it that the same person who would never get in the driver’s seat of a car after a few drinks is fine with hopping on a bike? In Washington, 25 percent of cyclist fatalities involve rider impairment.

Sure, a drunk cyclist is going to cause less damage to others than a drunken driver, but either one is a big risk for the impaired person. Cycling impaired doesn’t break the law, but it could result in a lot of other broken things. I’m thinking bones. As always, be kind and drive (or ride) wise.

And while we’re on the topic of impairment and transportation, I want to let you know that starting Aug. 19, local law enforcement will participate in statewide impaired-driving-emphasis patrols. That means more cops on the roads, looking specifically for impaired drivers.

It’s never a good idea to drink and drive, and for those who do, the odds of getting caught are about to go up.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information, visit Ask a question.