I want to preface my answer to this question by stating, clearly and unequivocally, that biking while drunk is incredibly dangerous. DO NOT DO IT!
Ok, now that that’s out of the way, here’s the story:
Many states have enacted specific legislation that makes it illegal to ride a bike under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
For example, in California (where the above illustration was first used), section 21200.5 of the vehicle code states that “it is unlawful for any person to ride a bicycle upon a highway while under the influence of an alcoholic beverage or any drug, or under the combined influence of an alcoholic beverage and any drug.”
A number of other states have chosen not to make drunk biking specifically illegal, and instead apply their existing impaired driving laws to cyclists.
Section 813.010 of the Oregon Revised Statutes, for example, states that it is unlawful if “a person commits the offense of driving while under the influence of intoxicants if the person drives a vehicle while the person: (a) Has .08 percent or more by weight of alcohol in the blood… (b) Is under the influence of intoxicating liquor, a controlled substance or an inhalant; or (c) Is under the influence of any combination of intoxicating liquor, an inhalant and a controlled substance.” [emphasis mine]
Although it doesn’t specifically mention riding a bicycle while drunk, this statute can be applied to cyclists through section 814.400, which says, in part, that “when the term ‘vehicle’ is used the term shall be deemed to be applicable to bicycles.”
Massachusetts follows neither approach. Under MA law, drunk biking is neither a distinct offense, nor a crime punishable under our drunk driving statute.
While our laws do give bikes all the rights and responsibilities of vehicles (as I explained in this post), our drunk driving law is worded differently than Oregon’s, and, as is often the case with statutes, the wording makes all the difference.
Under Chapter 90 § 24 of the Massachusetts General Laws, it is illegal to operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Section one of that chapter defines “motor vehicle” as “all vehicles constructed and designed for propulsion by power other than muscular power.” It goes on to say that the definition does not include motorized bicycles.
So there you have it. If you ride your bike drunk in Massachusetts, you cannot be arrested for drunk driving, even if you’ve outfitted your bicycle with a motor. You can still be taken into protective custody, but you won’t be charged with a crime.
In case you were wondering, I don’t think that drunk biking needs to be made illegal in MA. As I mentioned above, riding a bike while drunk is a terrible idea — however, if you’re foolish enough to do it, you’re really only risking your own life. Unlike drunk drivers, your potential risk to the rest of society is quite low.
Also, enforcing such a law would be incredibly problematic. Apart from the obvious question of how the police would determine who they should stop (“I only swerved to avoid that pothole, officer, I swear!”), a drunk biking law would provide a ready means for officers to detain pretty much anyone they see riding a bike.
In poorer communities, where people of color are already subjected to increased scrutiny and harassment by police, “biking while intoxicated” would become one more pretext for an otherwise unlawful seizure.
To me, the trivial benefit of such a law is far outweighed by its potential for abuse.