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DUI on a bicycle? It depends.

The Wisconsin State Bar Association discussed an appellate court case from that state regarding whether someone could be guilty of Driving Under the Influence (DUI) on a bicycle.  The bicycle in question could be self-propelled by an electric motor or could be pedaled without the assist, or could operate with a combination of the two.  Because of the specific facts of the case, the court avoided the question of exactly what Wisconsin law does and does not prohibit on a bicycle.

Wisconsin law prohibits the operation of a “motor vehicle” while under the influence of alcohol. The defendant (the accused) argued that a bicycle is not a “motor vehicle” and he thus could not be guilty of DUI.

However, under Wisconsin law. a motor vehicle is defined as any self-propelled vehicle. The prosecution argued that since the bicycle was motor-assisted, it was a motor vehicle.

The appellate court did not accept that argument wholesale but nevertheless sided with the State due to the specific facts. After observing the defendant’s actions, police gave chase.

The officer who pursued the cyclist said his feet were dangling off the sides and he was not pedaling but the bike was accelerating. When the defendant finally stopped, the officer observed the ignition switch was on and the motor was functioning.  The court reasoned that while a bicycle is capable of being human-powered only, the evidence showed that in this instance, the defendant was in fact relying upon the additional power that the motor afforded him.

There is not sufficient information in the article to determine what the outcome might be in Illinois.  It is clear that the operator of an ordinary, fully human-powered bicycle could not receive a DUI in Illinois and could not be charged with driving on a revoked or suspended driver’s license.

Such a person could not be charged with driving suspended or revoked. But contrary to popular belief. the reason this is true has nothing to do with the fact that a driver’s license is not required in order to ride a bicycle. Nor is it because a bicycle does not have to be plated.  (Standard Mut. Ins. Co. v. Rogers, 381 Ill. App. 3d 196, 884 N.E.2d 845, 318 Ill. Dec. 877, 2008 WL 795294 (Ill. App. Ct. 3d Dist. 2008))

Neither of the above factors is controlling because when the Illinois Secretary of State suspends/revokes someone’s driver’s license, he also suspends/revokes that person’s right to drive a motor vehicle on the public roadways of Illinois.  (625 ILCS 5/6-303) Therefore, with regard to a bicycle, the issue is not whether or not a license or plate is required but whether it is a “motor vehicle”.

Definitions of relevant terms:

625 ILCS 5/1-146:

“Motor vehicle”.  Every vehicle which is self-propelled and every vehicle which is propelled by electric power obtained from overhead trolley wires, but not operated upon rails, except for vehicles moved solely by human power, motorized wheelchairs, low-speed electric bicycles, and low-speed gas bicycles.

625 ILCS 5/1-140.10:

“Low-speed electric bicycle”.  The term “low-speed electric bicycle” has the same meaning ascribed to it by Section 38 of the Consumer Product Safety Act (15 U.S.C. Sec. 2085).

15 U.S.C.A. § 2085:

(b) Definition:  For the purpose of this section, the term “low-speed electric bicycle” means a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph.

625 ILCS 5/1-140.15
“Low-speed gas bicycle.” A 2 or 3-wheeled device with fully operable pedals and a gasoline motor of less than one horsepower, whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 miles per hour.

In short, if the power-assisted bicycle is less than one horsepower and cannot exceed 20 miles per hour when carrying a 170 pound person, it is not illegal to drive it during a time of a suspended/revoked license. The same result would maintain if the person were operating a pure, human-powered bicycle.

The outcome of a DUI charge while operating a motor or engine-assisted bicycle is less clear because the wording of the DUI law is a bit different from that of the driving suspended/revoked law. The DUI law prohibits the operation of a “vehicle” while under the influence. (625 ILCS 5/11-501)

“Vehicle”. Every device, in, upon or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway or requiring a certificate of title under Section 3-101(d) of this Code, except devices moved by human power, devices used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks and snowmobiles as defined in the Snowmobile Registration and Safety Act.  (625 ILCS 5/1-217)
This definition does not specifically address a power-assisted bicycle. And no reported case has decided whether there is a different analysis that applies to the DUI law as opposed to the driving while suspended/revoked law as a result of the former using the word “vehicle” rather than “motor vehicle”. However, it is this author’s belief that a person could be charged with DUI while operating a power-assisted bicycle, regardless of the power of the motor or engine.
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