Biking buzzed? It's not against the law but has its risks

MATT MCKINNEY | Updated 6/10/2013

More Minnesotans than ever are riding bicycles: to work, to the store and, inevitably, to the bar.

Mark Gibson coasting into the parking lot of Indeed Brewing.
Jeff Wheeler

Their cars parked back at home, Brian Koehn and 30 of his pals hopped on their bikes for a bachelor party bash on wheels, pedaling from bar to bar until they ended up at a White Castle drive-through, still holding onto the handlebars.

“Everyone had a good time,” said Koehn, smiling at the memory while nursing a beer last week at the Indeed Brewing taproom in northeast Minneapolis.

More Minnesotans than ever are riding bicycles: to work, to the store and, inevitably, to the bar. The long-cherished bicycle pub crawl, once a renegade’s night out, has come out of the shadows as both bicycling and beer making rise to intoxicating new heights in Minneapolis.

A Minneapolis brewery owner said she regularly fields phone calls from cyclists who plan to stop by with large groups. And the breweries themselves court bicyclists with bike racks and, soon from Harriet Brewing in south Minneapolis, bike jerseys.

Two-wheeled tippling is legal in Minneapolis, but not without risks. One study conducted by Minneapolis found that bicyclists were impaired by alcohol or drugs in nearly 6 percent of the nearly 3,000 bicyclist-motorist collisions that occurred between 2000 and 2010, including 12 fatalities.

More recently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 23 percent of the 677 cyclists killed on the road in 2011 would have been considered legally drunk under Minnesota law, with blood-alcohol levels of at least 0.08 grams per deciliter. At that level, a bicyclist increases his chances of a serious or deadly injury by 2,000 percent, according to a study by Johns Hopkins University.

“Take the precautions, wear a helmet and don’t be an idiot,” advised Mike Madetzke, a regular cyclist who said he feels more comfortable riding his bike to the bar than taking a car.

Illegal elsewhere

Bike riders are subject to traffic control laws, but drunken driving laws in Minnesota extend only to motorized vehicles, said Minneapolis police spokesman Sgt. Bill Palmer. A 20-year veteran, he’s never stopped someone just for bicycling while drunk.

Not every state turns a blind eye to blitzed two-wheelers; California and Oregon have laws on the books, and cyclists in Idaho, Utah and Indiana have been arrested.

At the University of Minnesota, police may target cyclists for enforcement at the beginning of the school year to make it clear to students that they must follow traffic laws while riding. But rarely do the police stop anyone for drunken biking, said University of Minnesota Deputy Chief of Police Chuck Miner. If someone’s found drunk on a bike, they would get sent to detox or hospitalized, he said.

“If they’re weaving, or blocking traffic or running a stop light or stop sign, those are all violations,” he said. “A cyclist could get a ticket for careless driving.”

Ethan Fawley, president of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, said the policy conversations he’s taken part in at the State Capitol have never broached the topic of a DWI law for bicyclists. “It’s just totally not been on anyone’s radar that I’m aware of,” he said.

The crop of new local breweries has risen across the metro area just as bicycle use has become more commonly seen as serious transportation.

Some 4 percent of Minneapolis commuters get to work on two wheels. Younger people, especially the 20-something millennials, have turned to bicycles as well as public transportation while shunning driver’s licenses at higher rates than previous generations, according to studies from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the University of Michigan.

“Millennials care less about their cars,” said Phineas Baxandall, an analyst with the research group.