You don’t have to look much further than the proliferation of booze-based bicycle products to realize that the bike community, by and large, likes to drink. There are handcrafted leather holders to carry your a 6-pack, a growler, or a bottle of wine on your top tube, and cooler panniers which keep your 12-pack crisp and cold on the way to the beach. There’s a city bike with a bottle opener and cup-holder built in, and the handlebar cup-holder that is perfectly fitted to a standard can but not quite suitable for a coffee mug.
If you require a little more proof, then how about the multitude of bike-friendly bars and microbreweries popping up all over the world, or the growing availability of urban brewery tours by bike? At a time when drunk driving is regarded as the domain of only the dangerously irresponsible few, drunk biking – or drinking while biking – is generally thought of as harmless, and in the industry is outright celebrated.
But according to police in Montreal, Quebec, the frequency with which residents are pedalling around while more than just a little bit buzzed is presenting a safety hazard to the public. The Service de police de la ville de Montréal (SPVM) are currently requesting amendments to Quebec’s Highway Safety Code that would enable them to crack down on impaired cyclists. At present, the only provision instated makes it illegal to actually drink while riding a bicycle, but does nothing to deal with the issue of people leaving bars and getting on their bikes.
“Someone who’s inebriated while riding a bicycle represents a hazard for themselves and for others. This is why we’re concerned,” said Insp. André Durocher of the SPVM in an interview with CTV Montreal.
But others are less convinced. Suzanne Lareau, president of the provincial bike advocacy organization Vélo Québec, told CTV that the police department is looking for a problem where none exists. She argues that the only victim of a drunk cyclist is the cyclist themself, and public resources would be much better spent on combatting issues that actually kill people, such as dooring.
The issue is a complicated one, and is largely not given its deserved attention in the bike industry and wider community.
While biking drunk is undoubtedly much safer than driving while drunk, and Lareau is correct in her assumption that the injury tends to befall only the cyclist in question, the fact is that drinking and biking is routinely celebrated in the bike community without ever being accompanied by hard conversations about its potential dangers. While most people who take part understand their own limitations and don’t tend to ride around completely wasted, those that do the latter are not usually criticized or reprimanded, either privately or in the public discourse. Similarly, most people wouldn’t hesitate to prevent their friends from driving home while drunk, but very few would do the same for cycling.
In the interest of full disclosure, I once knocked two of my front teeth out while biking home drunk – I was living in Montreal at the time. I was more than just a little buzzed, but a far cry from hammered, and a disagreement between my front tire and a pothole I failed to notice sent me flying over the handlebars to headbutt the pavement in an act of revenge. It was a painful wake up call that resulted in a year and half spent in the dentist’s chair, $12,000 in dental bills, and a slight scarring on my upper lip. And yet, less than three years later, I’m back occasionally pedalling around a few beers deep in my new home city, albeit much more slowly and carefully these days.
The fact of the matter is, when biking is your main mode of transportation and you’re known to indulge in the occasional pint, biking a bit tipsy is almost a foregone conclusion. Your friends are riding home, your coworkers are riding home after happy hour – to drink a few beers then refuse to get on your bike would be inconvenient and almost bizarre. However, the knowledge that you can have a beer or two then ride home safely is a slippery slope to the false assumption that you can or should do the same after six or seven. It’s knowing where to draw that line – and advocating for others to do the same – where the bike community fails.
Accurate statistics on drinking and biking are hard to come by, largely due to the lack of policing around the issue and the fact that scores of people bike drunk every day without winding up in the hospital. A 2007 government report in the UK found that 13% of cyclists killed in the previous year were above the legal limit for alcohol. But without recorded causation that could just as easily be interpreted as a lack of safe cycling infrastructure and an enthusiastic drinking culture across the UK. While most experts agree you’re more likely to hurt yourself than anyone else if cycling home drunk, a person who is so drunk they’d have trouble walking home could very easily swerve into traffic and cause a larger crash. Moreover, alcohol tends to increase negative cycling behavior such as biking quickly and recklessly, while reducing balance, judgement, and motor control. As more and more people on bikes begin to fill our streets, the risks posed by speeding, wobbly cyclists will only increase.
But if something needs to be done about drinking and biking, is a law the most effective way to go about it? In Vancouver, BC where I now live, impaired cyclists can be arrested for public intoxication under the Liquor Control and Licensing Act. If their actions cause a crash or result in a death, they’ll be held liable for damages or charged with criminal negligence, respectively. In California, cycling drunk can result in getting slapped with a CUI (Cycling Under the Influence), a misdemeanour conviction which will leave you with a $250 fine and a criminal record. To my knowledge, neither law has done much to curb rates of drunk biking in either place. In the UK, where the recorded 13% of cyclists killed in crashes were legally drunk, biking intoxicated has been illegal for years.
Cycling while drinking laws are notoriously difficult to enforce and even more difficult to convince people to take seriously. Moreover, an all out criminalization of biking under the influence that was strictly enforced would likely just result in a reduction in cycling generally, rather than a specific reduction in cycling drunk. Considering the minimal public safety hazard presented by slightly-intoxicated cyclists, and the huge fitness benefit of biking for transportation, it would be more detrimental to long-term public health if all of those people were to sit on the bus every day instead.
In my mind, the responsibility needs to fall on the bike community to keep ourselves and our friends safe. While of course we should continue to advocate for the things which protect cyclists and street users in general – better infrastructure and better driver education – we should also be having more conversations about the real dangers of drunk biking, and getting better at identifying its upper limits. Putting a complete halt to drinking and biking is unrealistic and, frankly, doesn’t sound very fun. Beers and bicycles are for the most part a happy marriage, and I’m willing to bet the relationship is here to stay. But putting a halt to getting sloshed and cruising around is something we all can and should play a part in.
Since falling off my bike, I’ve started wearing a helmet when I know I’m going to have a couple beers, and leaving the bike at home when I think I might have more than that. When I’m riding with friends, I ask that they do the same. Understanding the difference between riding home from a casual happy hour and a marathon drinking session may not be the difference between life and death, but it could just be the reason you get to keep all of your teeth.
Hilary Angus is the Online Editor at Momentum Mag. She knows a really good dentist in Montreal if anyone needs it. @HilaryAngus
Get your FREE copy of our new guide: Momentum Mag's E-Bike Guide
In this guide we explore some of the different ways an e-bike can provide solutions for different users, outline the different types of e-bikes available, give a briefer on the technological components, and offer some advice on purchasing your own electric bicycle.
Please select your country and provide a valid email address
Thank you for your submission. Please check your inbox to download the guide!