Can you ride when you’ve been drinking?
I don’t mean this as a challenge. What I mean is: what happens if you’re caught cycling when you’ve had a bit to drink?
There are two main offences which you might commit:
- Riding a cycle on a road or other public place while unfit to ride through drink or drugs (RTA s.30)
- Being drunk while in charge of a carriage on any highway or other public place (LA 1872, s.12; Corkery v Carpenter  1 KB 102)
For the riding while unfit offence you have to be, well, riding.
Curiously, you can only be convicted of the drunk in charge offence if you’re not riding. So if you attempt to ride but can’t, or (possibly) even if you’re just pushing your bike along, you could be convicted of being drunk in charge (RTOA s.5; DPP v Watkins  QB 821, 831)
There are other public order offences you can commit just by being drunk in a public place. For these, normally you have to be behaving badly before anything happens. They’re not specific to bikes though, so no more on them.
How drunk can you be and get away with it?
The question is not whether you’re over the limit – the offence of driving while over the limit doesn’t apply to cyclists. (RTA s.5)
To commit the offence of riding while unfit, the statute says that you have to be under the influence of drink (or drugs) to the extent that you’re incapable of having proper control of the cycle. If you’re capable of some sort of control, but wobbling and weaving around, then you’re probably not capable of proper control, and you’re probably committing the offence.
In the wobbling and weaving scenario, even if you weren’t convicted of riding while unfit, you could be committing the offence of cycling without due care and attention. (RTA s.29)
So as a guideline, if you’re capable of riding normally and carefully, you should be ok.
To commit the offence of being drunk while in charge of a bike (which you can only commit when you’re not riding), you have to be drunk. The law isn’t very helpful here – whether you’re drunk is a common-sense question, with no real guidelines on how bad things have to be. The courts will take into account evidence from the police (or other people) as to whether you smelt of alcohol, how you spoke and behaved, or possibly even evidence from people in the pub as to how much you’d put away. It’ll probably help if you walk in a straight line, don’t slur and (maybe?) chew gum.
What can the police do if they catch you?
The police don’t have the power to require you to take a breath test or provide samples, either on the road or anywhere else. They might ask, but you won’t commit an offence if you say no. On the other hand, if you do agree to take a test and it shows a high level of alcohol in your system, they may well be able to use it as evidence against you. (RTA s.6)
Similarly the police can’t require you to do “impairment tests” – the finger to nose, stand on one leg, walk a straight line kind of thing you secretly worry that you wouldn’t even pass when sober. They might ask, and the same applies – you can say no without committing an offence, but if you do take the tests, they might use the evidence. (RTA s.6, 6B)
With these offences, the police will probably have most of their evidence before they stop you. They’re likely to have seen enough to judge whether you’re drunk (for the drunk in charge offence) or incapable of having proper control of your bike just by watching you.
If they take the view that you have committed the riding while unfit offence or the drunk in charge offence, they have no power to issue a fixed penalty notice. So it’s either a verbal warning or prosecution (or possibly a caution). If you are caught committing one of these offences, there’s probably a fair chance you’ll be arrested to prevent injury to yourself or others. (RTOA ss.51(1), 54(1), Sch 3; PACE s.24(5)(c))
Penalties and consequences
The riding while unfit offence carries a maximum fine of £1000. (RTOA s.9, Sch 2)
The drunk in charge offence carries a maximum penalty of £200 or (at the moment) one month in prison (LA 1872, s.12).
As I’ve mentioned before, even if the police don’t get involved, the courts might take into account the fact that you’d been drinking if you were in an accident and were sued (or sued someone else). It could make it more likely you’d be found negligent, or it could mean that damages you won were reduced because you were found to be at fault.
Finally, a note on electric bikes. If you ride an “electrically assisted” bike – a bike which you can cycle normally, but which has an electric motor which you can switch on for a boost – the offences above still apply, but there are some extra rules.
Electrically assisted bikes (when they comply with the statutory rules) are “mechanically propelled vehicles” under the Road Traffic Acts. You still don’t have to worry about driving while over the limit (RTA s.5 doesn’t apply). But the offence of driving a mechanically propelled vehicle while unfit through drink or drugs does apply, as does the related offence of being in charge while unfit. These offences carry higher penalties (including possible prison sentences). (RTA ss.4(1), 4(2); RTOA s.9, Sch 2).
You can commit these offences if your ability to drive properly is impaired – you don’t have to be incapable of proper control (RTA s.4(5)). So it seems that these offences are easier to commit than riding while unfit.
If you’re accused of one of these offences, the police can’t require you do tests on the spot (breath tests, impairment tests etc). But you can be made to do a breath test or provide a blood or urine sample at a police station or hospital. Failure to comply is an offence carrying a fine of up to £5000. (RTA ss.7(1), 7(6); RTOA s.9, Sch 2)