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Risky business

3 December, 2013

Many people ride home after a few drinks, but should they? Margot McGovern investigates. 

RO316_42_Ride On Dec13 00-15_PROOF 7

The inside of Jamie’s** arm is blue and purple—in fact it’s hard to see any normal skin colour at all. It’s a brutal bruise—the result of a night out on the booze and a shaky ride home.

Jamie explains he was riding down a hill and hit an obstacle on the road before colliding with a pole that “jumped out at him.”

Lucky for Jamie, it’s just a bruise—by the time this story goes live, it will be healed—just a memory of a big night out.

But for many who ride drunk, the consequences can be much, much worse. Sometimes they’re fatal.

So why do so many riders take the risk?

While exact figures of how many people drink and ride aren’t readily available, Ride On decided to survey bike riders about their post-pub or party habits. The survey was anonymous and asked 125 riders whether they had ridden home drunk in the past year, whether they had injured themselves and why they
had done it in the first place.

Riding while drunk is not legal. However, the laws aren’t all straightforward and offences and penalties differ from state to state.

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.

Riding while drunk is not legal. However, the laws aren’t all straightforward and offences and penalties differ across from state to state.

For example, in the South Australian Road Traffic Act 1961 it falls under the same offence as drink driving, but the penalty is reduced, while in Queensland, according to the Transport Operations (Road Use Management) Act 1995, “Any person who, while under the influence of liquor or a drug, drives or is in charge of
any vehicle (other than a motor vehicle) on a road, or attempts to put in motion any vehicle (other than a motor vehicle) on a road, is guilty of an offence.” An offender
can be charged a maximum 40 penalty units ($4,400) or nine months in prison. In Western Australia, the Road Traffic Code 2000 states that: “A person shall not on any road or path…ride a bicycle while under the influence of alcohol, drugs or alcohol and drugs to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of the bicycle” and the penalty is two penalty units ($100).

In Victoria, the offence is ‘Drunk in charge of a carriage’ and the penalty is 10 penalty units ($1,443.60 in 2013/2014) or two months’ imprisonment.

Victoria Police’s State Bicycle Operations Coordinator, Sergeant Arty Lavos says that in Victoria riding drunk is considered a different offence to drink driving, so bike riders can’t be breath tested by police and they don’t lose demerit points on their driver’s license, if they have one.

As bike riders can’t be breath tested, technically they don’t have to be below the 0.05 blood alcohol limit that applies to motorists, and police must assess a rider’s level of intoxication by their behaviour.

However, if a bike rider appears to be intoxicated, they may be charged with other offences, such as being drunk in a public place, and taken into custody to sober up. Riders can also be taken into custody for other serious traffic offences in relation to their riding behaviour and conduct, and they can face criminal charges for causing a serious collision.

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.

While a fear of getting caught may be a deterrent to riding home after a few too many drinks, the real disincentive should be the risk you potentially pose to yourself and others.

“You might not have a motor but you’re more vulnerable and if you are involved in an incident the consequences can be dire,” Sergeant Lavos says.

While the laws can be confusing, the statistics paint an interesting picture of who is drink riding and the consequences of doing so.

A 2010 study from the Queensland University of Technology and the Centre for Accident Research and Safety titled ‘Should we be concerned about alcohol in bicycle crashes?’ found that “alcohol was reported in 20% of fatal bicycle crashes between 2003 and 2007”.

Similarly, the statistics show that in 2008 in Victoria, 22% of cyclists who died in crashes had a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of 0.15 or higher—three times over the legal limit for driving.

One of the more interesting findings of the Queensland study was that young people aren’t the most likely to wobble home on two wheels.

Of reported bike crashes related to alcohol, those aged 30–39 and 50–59 were the most likely to get drunk and jump on their bike to get home.

Given a bike, a drunk person might be tempted to ride with no helmet, no hands, to jump the curb or guide their their skinny-wheeled steed over slippery surfaces or tram tracks.

The Queensland study also found 13.2% of riders injured at night had been drinking, and while alcohol was only present in 2.6% of cases overall, the study only looked at incidents that had been reported to the police. In fact, one of the key limitations of the few studies available is that they only have data from reported crashes, and it’s unlikely that a crash will be reported unless it’s fairly serious.

A 2009 Dutch study from Utrecht University, titled ‘Nonfatal bicycle accident risk after an evening of alcohol consumption’, estimated 60–90% of bike accidents aren’t reported to the police. Therefore, it’s difficult to know how many people are riding while intoxicated and what percentage are involved in a crash of any severity. Perhaps more relevant is that this data can’t tell us what percentage sought medical treatment for injuries attained while riding drunk (according to the Queensland study 3.4% of those admitted to hospital were intoxicated, but it’s not known how many visited their GP), nor what percentage required time off work. If riding drunk is draining health resources and costing employers, then this would be worth addressing.

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. However, it is worth noting that the survey relied on the respondents being honest and that the actual figures may be slightly higher as a larger number of respondents answered these questions than said they had ridden drunk in the past year.

So what do these stats tell us? Though more rigorous data is needed, it would appear that, while the overall injury rate is relatively low, riders are still taking a significant risk to get home—potentially a fatal one.

How does alcohol affect your riding ability?Drink riding

According to the Transport Accident Commission Victoria (TAC), alcohol can compromise many key skills necessary for safe riding and driving, most obviously psychomotor skills (balance and coordination), but also our reaction time, vision, perceptiveness, vigilance and ability to divide attention between all aspects of riding.

The TAC provides a rough guide to what level of intoxication affects each of these skills (bit.ly/1b6JWAw). However, it’s important to bear in mind that alcohol not only affects everyone differently, it also impairs our ability to judge the effect it has.

While not being able to ride in a straight line is a serious problem, it’s not the only or even the biggest issue when riding drunk. Alcohol also increases confidence and reduces inhibitions so that the impossible appears achievable. It leads people to engage in risky behaviour that they would otherwise avoid: karaoke, texting their ex and going home with someone they shouldn’t, to name just a few.

Given a bike, a drunk person might be tempted to ride with no helmet, no hands, to jump the curb or guide their skinny-wheeled steed over slippery surfaces or tram tracks.

A 2013 study from the University of New South Wales that looked at riders who were involved in a collision with a motor vehicle, found that riders who didn’t wear a helmet were four times as likely to have a BAC exceeding 0.05, indicating that riders who drink are more likely to engage in other risky behaviours that not only increase their chance of injury, but also the severity of that injury.

Is it worth the risk

For some states, the law deems when it’s acceptable to ride and when it’s not by enforcing a BAC limit. For those states where there is no set BAC limit, riders need to make a judgement call considering how much alcohol they have consumed and how it has affected them; the riding conditions; the distance and difficulty of their route; and whether they potentially pose a risk to themselves or, more importantly, other road or path users.

Bicycle Network’s Chief Executive Officer Craig Richards says riders have a responsibility to take care of themselves and of other road users.

“We know that the risk of a crash rises significantly after people have a few drinks, and after a few too many drinks they are in real danger of harming themselves or others,” he said. “We never like to see a rider injured, whether because of their error or that of someone else. We all have to accept the responsibility of managing the risks of being on a bike and that includes being seriously careful about mixing drinking and riding.”

** Jamie is not his real name.

Check your state’s Summary Offences Act or Road Traffic Act to see what offence and penalty are applicable for drink riding.

The law

ACT bit.ly/1bjDPY5

NSW bit.ly/NCb4eX

QLD bit.ly/1bjCeBA

SA bit.ly/1eCbyTn

TAS bit.ly/1dj3wLe

VIC bit.ly/SYUU5x

WA bit.ly/1hZYLK8

Study links

‘Effects of alcohol’, Transport Accident Commission Victoria bit.ly/1b6JWAw

‘Nonfatal bicycle accident risk after an evening of alcohol consumption’, Utrecht University (2009) bit.ly/1hi42Pk

‘Should we be concerned about alcohol in bicycle crashes?’, Queensland University of Technology and the Centre for Accident Research and Safety (2010) bit.ly/16EKHRq

‘The effectiveness of helmets in bicycle collisions with motor vehicles: a case-control study’, University of New South Wales (2013) bit.ly/19fzJj1

12 Comments leave one →
  1. topendR permalink
    3 December, 2013 10:37 am

    So Northern Territory doesn’t (1) exist or (2) doesn’t have any laws?

    • 3 December, 2013 11:01 am

      Hi topendR, we couldn’t find specific legislation that applied in the Northern Territory. However, if you know of the law that applies, please let us know and we will amend the article.

  2. 72pac permalink
    3 December, 2013 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.

  3. 11 December, 2013 4:18 pm

    It’s not funny, it’s not smart and it’s certainly not safe so why do it? Legal or not?

    • snooch permalink
      11 December, 2013 10:36 pm

      it’s awesome. i ride way better when i’m drunk!

    • Dirk Bottoms permalink
      12 December, 2013 9:41 am

      Because I just happen to ride better when I’m drunk.

    • pilvenreuna permalink
      8 January, 2014 5:18 pm

      Because it’s the best way to get home safely from a pub, what with Melbourne distances!

  4. thomasthethinkengine permalink
    11 December, 2013 4:47 pm

    There is a whole universe of exciting activities that are not funny, smart or certainly safe to do. If you never engage in any of them your life will be awfully drab. Just keep both hands on the handlebars, kids.

  5. james permalink
    11 December, 2013 4:55 pm

    Hi just wondering in Queensland I believe that it is legal to ride on the foot path and in their legislation it does only stipulate “road”.. does this mean they differentiate the two.

  6. pilvenreuna permalink
    11 December, 2013 6:12 pm

    A bicycle is the perfect transport to get you home from the pub. I’ve done it for decades (mostly overseas, though). It’s not legal there either, but the police doesn’t police it too vigorously. One of my best holidays was a week’s cycling from pub to pub in Ireland.

    I’m safe because I can handle my licquor – I don’t have more than three pints at the pub (although I have cycled after six pints of Guinness, which was educational, because I learned what the proverbial “The pavement isn’t wide enough” actually feels like when you’ve had too much.).

    When I’ve had a drink I can feel how my reactions are slower, so I slow down my cycling and go on the pavement rather than the roads. Riding in Melbourne traffic is far more dangerous than riding drunk, because a large number of drivers don’t know how bicycles work. So my riding drunk is arguably safer because I stay well away from opening car doors.

    When I’ve had a few I’m relaxed and in no hurry, so I don’t take any risks. I don’t understand how people speed when they are cycling drunk. But I guess it’s not for everyone – I grew up with both the booze and the bicycle.

  7. almostastastic permalink
    11 December, 2013 6:50 pm

    “the only person they risked hurting was themselves”

    This is wrong on so many levels. Drunk cyclist swerves out in front of traffic causing a car to take drastic action to avoid the idiot. The car then plows into a group of innocent pedestrians waiting at a tram stop killing and injuring a number of them.

    Then again intoxicated people can’t think beyond their own addled stupid brains.

    Don’t drink and go anywhere near the roads, bloody idiot!

  8. melon permalink
    12 December, 2013 10:38 am

    on the other hand the traffic is often lighter at 9-10pm than 6pm, so the chances of having a crash due to other motorists is probably lower in the first place. I would take a quiet route avoiding trams and other hazards, I don’t see a problem in having a couple of pints.

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