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.
"That was a wakeup call," he reflects.
The number of Americans commuting by bicycle has soared by 43 percent since 2000—and more than doubled in Milwaukee and in Portland, Oregon, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So, as more Americans rely on two-wheeled transport to get them to and from work, it stands to reason that many of these newly minted cyclists are biking home drunk. Happy hour, after all, is as happy as ever.
In a sense, biking while drunk seems safer than driving drunk. Bicycles aren't two-ton hunks of steel and glass capable of reaching triple-digit speeds. And drinking and biking have long gone hand in hand. Bike pub crawls are a national institution. Urban-bike manufacturer Traitor Cycles has produced a line of $1,000 commuter bikes emblazoned with Pabst Blue Ribbon logos.
"Bicycle culture has strongly embraced drinking. I suppose it's viewed as a fun thing to do while posing little risk to the general public—far less than drinking and driving, anyway," says Chicago bike-accident attorney Brendan Kevenides.
But as more tipsy cyclists take to the nation's paths, parks, and highway shoulders, will bicycling while drunk go from illicit fun to legitimate public-safety hazard?
Anecdotes run the gamut from simple spills to drunken collisions with large vehicles. After a grad-school group meeting in a Seattle bar, Josh Thompson and a friend were cycling home when his friend sped head-on into a bus. Miraculously, he sustained only minor injuries.
"It was funny," says Thompson, an architectural engineer, "because we'd been drinking. All we could think was: Hey, he's not in bad shape."
Thompson cycles home from bars as a matter of course, "because it's faster than walking, and who can afford to take cabs all the time? By cycling, I feel like I'm doing something beneficial to society, and whatever the risks are, I know they're nominal compared to driving under the influence and possibly killing someone."
In Germany, a student caught cycling home intoxicated from a party was fined $700 and banned from riding a bicycle on German streets for 15 years.
Another night after happy hour, Thompson and another pal were cycling home when "I went too fast and ate it on a turn. I fell. Laughing hysterically, my friend decided to spin around in a circle to show off, but in doing so he ate it even harder than I did"—hard enough that he injured his face so badly that he missed an entire week of work.
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While drunk drivers menace everyone, "drunk cyclists pose a risk to other bicyclists and to pedestrians. Of course, the drunk bicyclist poses the greatest threat to himself or herself," says Kevenides. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly one-third of the bicyclists killed in U.S. traffic crashes in 2008 had a blood-alcohol content of at least .01 grams per deciliter. Nearly one-fourth had BACs of at least .08 g/dL, the national legal limit.
A .08 g/dL BAC raises a cyclist's risk of serious or fatal injury by 2,000 percent, according to a study by Johns Hopkins researchers, who found that alcohol impairs riders' ability to maintain balance, navigate in traffic, and perceive hazards, and increases the likelihood of risky behaviors such as riding recklessly and fast. Drunk cyclists, they also found, are less inclined than sober cyclists to wear helmets. (Not Josh Thompson, though: "My helmet is my health-insurance policy," he says earnestly.)
"If you get drunk, throw your bike in the back of a cab, on a bus, or just lock it up and walk home," Kevenides advises. "Operating a bike in an urban setting with drivers who think, wrongly, that you have no right to use the road is tough enough sober. Doing so with your senses dulled from the effects of booze can be quite deadly."
It can also land you behind bars, depending on where you do it. Unlike DUI laws, BUI laws are notoriously hazy and site-specific.
In Vernal, Utah, two years ago, a pair of archeologists cycling home from a bar were pulled over, given sobriety tests, handcuffed, jailed overnight, and charged with driving under the influence. Two months ago, a man in Boulder, Colorado, was arrested for BUI after hitting a car with his bike and trying to run a red light; it was the third such ticket issued in Boulder this year. And in Germany last year, a student caught cycling home intoxicated from a party was fined €500 ($700) and banned from riding a bicycle on German streets for 15 years.
"It is unlawful for any person to ride a bicycle upon a highway while under the influence of an alcoholic beverage," reads California's Vehicle Code; offenders face base fines of $250. Earlier this year, a Washington, D.C. court found that BUI falls under that jurisdiction's DUI law.
But biking while blitzed is technically legal in Illinois. "Our appellate court held in 1995 that the state's DUI statute, which provides for some very stiff penalties, does not apply to cyclists caught biking under the influence," Kevenides says.
"There is certainly a subculture of the bicycling community that celebrates drinking," says California bike-rights advocate Jason Meggs. "I've seen large groups of people drink and ride. They consider it safe, and it's a matter of relative risk: Is someone bicycling while intoxicated more or less likely to get into a collison than someone driving while intoxicated?"
Many bicyclists would say they're less likely to collide, "and I think so too," Meggs says—maybe because, drunk or sober, "bicyclists can see better than drivers. They can hear better. They can stop more quickly."
Meggs, whose UC Berkeley master's degree is in public health with an emphasis on cycling, watched two riders on a recent 300-bike Critical Mass ride fall onto the asphalt when their bikes became enmeshed.
"In the tumble, a brown bottle fell and broke, leaving sharp, curved chunks and shards of glass sticking up like a bed of nails. As the riders picked one another up and dusted themselves free of the glass from what was evidently a beer bottle, a passing cyclist said drily, 'That's why you drink from cans.'
"This illustrates to me how acceptable drinking and bicycling is to some people who presumably wouldn't feel the same way about drinking and driving. A passerby not only doesn't criticize, he advises on how to better drink while bicycling."
But drunk biking has its points, he concedes.
"It surely helps overcome fear of traffic and creates social bonds. In this sense, the dangers of alcohol—itself a toxic swill—and biking under the influence may pale in light of the benefits: a more healthy and sustainable transportation mode emerging against great odds and obstacles.
"To have some crackdown on bicycling and drinking may do much more harm than good in the big picture, however well-intentioned the effort may claim to be. There are few things in the world more important than getting more people to choose and enjoy bicycling at this juncture in human history."
Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and the Nautilus Award-winning Stuck: Why We Don't (or Won't) Move On, and the coauthor of still more, including Weird Europe and The Scavengers' Manifesto. In 2006, she won a Society of Professional Journalists award for criticism.