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Drunk Cycling in the City

Bumps, bruises (and risk of arrest) won't stop some Vancouverites from biking under the influence.

Aurora Tejeida 3 Jul

Aurora Tejeida is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

It's 8 p.m. on a Friday night in Vancouver. Outside The Whip, a pub off Main Street, the bike rack is already full. Inside are a couple of tables with bike helmets resting next to pitchers or pints of beer. Four hours later, late-night revellers are spilling out of the Cobalt and Electric Owl, two popular live music venues further down the street. It's not uncommon to see people getting on their bikes and riding off into the night.

Drunk driving may be on the decline, according to recent studies, but drunk cycling is another story. Many who wouldn't consider getting behind the wheel after a few drinks don't think twice before hopping on their bikes. Although it's difficult to say how prevalent drunk cycling is, there are consequences that are often overlooked.

Bloodied, bruised and shamed

Ben Christopher bikes everywhere, including to bars and parties. Even though he doesn't live in Vancouver anymore, he recalls one time when he was headed for a show downtown. Before leaving home he decided to have some drinks with friends.

"Somehow one or two drinks turned into a few more and I was in a rush to get to the show, so I was just drinking quite quickly," says Christopher (who is, full disclosure, a former Tyee intern). By the time he left his home, he wasn't feeling too drunk and even though his friends recommended he take the bus, he figured "it wasn't a big deal."

By the time Christopher got downtown, he couldn't find the venue. He realized he had made a big mistake.

"I started to feel like I shouldn't be out on the road and rather than getting off my bike and taking the bus, which I should've done, I just decided to turn around and start riding home."

The distance between Christopher's former home in East Vancouver and the venue was maybe 20 or 25 blocks, but somewhere between 10 and 15 blocks he started getting dizzy and had to stumble off his bike to throw up. He figured it was out of system, so he got back on his bike. Halfway down the block he tumbled over.

"It wasn't very serious and at that point I think it left me with a bloody elbow and a bruised knee. A lot of shame too," says Christopher. "That was the biggest casualty, my self-esteem."

The legal consequences

Earlier this month, the University of Victoria released a study that found that B.C.'s drinking and driving laws had reduced the number of deaths from alcohol-related crashes by more than 40 per cent since the laws were introduced in Sept. 2010.

That same year, cycling-related accidents peaked.

In 2008, according to ICBC, there were 460 cycling-related crashes in Vancouver. In 2009, that number increased slightly to 464. In 2010, it shot up to 546.

But it's gone down since then; to 534 in 2011 and 500 in 2012.

However, these numbers could be misleading. Incidents only get reported when a car is involved -- potentially leaving out a large number of accidents -- and there may be other contributing factors, such as an increase in people biking.

Some car owners, like Kirsty Matthews, are more likely to take their bikes out instead of their cars because of harsh drunk driving laws in the province.

"The law had an impact on me for sure. I never really drunk drove before, but because the law is very severe, even if you're going to go slightly over the legal limit, I don't want to risk getting fined, so I just ride my bike," says Matthews.

When Matthews was younger, biking home from a friend's house in Montreal, she remembers going down a hill and not being able to brake properly. She ended up sliding under a car, bike and all.

"I was full of scrapes and bruises, nasty ones, but nothing serious," she says.

However Matthews, like many people, was not aware that cyclists are subject to the same rules and responsibilities as the motoring public in B.C.

According to Randy Fincham, media relations officer for the Vancouver Police Department, a person found to be cycling under the influence of drugs or alcohol could be arrested under the Liquor Control and Licensing Act for being in a state of intoxication in a public place.

Likewise, in the event that they injure or kill another person as a result of cycling while drunk, they could be charged with criminal negligence.

Are people hesitant to believe that drunk cycling is actually a crime?

"Anecdotally, I would say yes as I have stopped impaired cyclists throughout my career," says Fincham.

But biking drunk isn't only dangerous. Crashing into a car while riding a bike can make you liable. According to ICBC, if the car owner has collision coverage, their damages will be covered and ICBC would retain the right to then try to recover the cost of the damages and the customer's deductible from the at-fault-cyclist.

Last year, cyclist impairment made it into ICBC's top five contributing factors in crashes involving cyclists. However, because this was the first time these factors were registered, there is no way of comparing them to other years.

Not the same social stigma

The root of the problem could be cultural, as people often think drunk cycling is less selfish than drunk driving because of the perceived idea that you mostly only risk hurting yourself.

Christopher always considered himself to be the safest rider among his friends because he would insist on wearing a helmet and using proper lights in the night.

"I think there's a slightly different standard with bikes," Christopher says. "Although that's not necessarily true, for instance, if you drive into a car because you're drunk and get killed, that driver has to live with that for the rest of his life."

But neither the risk of getting pulled over nor the mere fact that biking drunk can be dangerous are considered the biggest threats to drunk cyclists. According to everyone this reporter interviewed, cars are what they worry about most during their commute back home in the middle of the night.

"If there was a separate bike lane, it wouldn't be an issue; it's sharing the road with cars that is dangerous," says Matthews.

Christopher agrees that when "you're buzzed and riding around" you're not going to be as cautious as you typically would be. Accidents like his and Matthews' are a testament to that.

Matthews also thinks it depends on the route.

"I think drunk biking in downtown Vancouver is dangerous and stupid, but if you're biking somewhere where there are no cars or not that many cars, and no pedestrians and you're not completely drunk, only slightly intoxicated, I don't think it should be too dangerous," says Matthews, adding "maybe just a little bit."

Avid cyclist Jordan (who asked that his last name not be published) doesn't see a problem with drinking and biking. He boasts about his cycling time from East Vancouver to Kitsilano (25 minutes) after having about six drinks at a party.

Jordan says he has never been in an accident caused by drunk biking. His last accident was four years ago and it involved carrying too many things in his hands while trying to change gears at the same time. Like Christopher, Jordan bikes everywhere.

"Even right now, I'm on my bike as we're doing this interview," he tells this reporter.

On his nights out, Jordan says he might have anything from one to 12 drinks.

"If I had something to drink I usually drink a lot of water and eat a slice of pizza or some food after I'm leaving the bar. I'll make sure that I'm prepared for biker mode before getting on my bike and then I'm off," he says, adding how great it was for preventing hangovers.

'Avoid getting so wasted'

Some people skip the bar altogether, and instead get together to drink while biking.

Almost 300 people confirmed their participation on the Facebook page for UBC's Bike Rave, an event where people are invited to "Come out on your two-wheeled transportation decked out in glowsticks, lights, and crazy costumes, and join us as we cycle around our beautiful campus in the twilight, stopping along the route for impromptu dance parties!"

A group called Cranked Cycling also organized a Bike Rave for the last weekend of June. More than 1,800 people confirmed their participation.

Even though drugs and alcohol are a part of the rave culture and not necessarily the biking culture, the disclaimer for this Bike Rave leaves no one guessing.

"In previous years, a few people have gotten hurt due to being intoxicated. While we can't tell you what to do, we ask that you try to avoid getting so wasted that you smash into people and cause them to get hurt. If you're riding with someone super drunk, try to encourage them to ride at the back of the pack."

Here's to hoping that person at the back of the pack had very bright lights on his or her bike.  [Tyee]

Read more: Transportation

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