Politics & Government

Wichita pedaling toward new drunken-biking law

George Theoharis, a member of Wichita’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, supports having a strong ordinance against drunken bike riding.
George Theoharis, a member of Wichita’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, supports having a strong ordinance against drunken bike riding. File photo

The city of Wichita is rolling ahead with a new ordinance to keep drunken biking a local crime but is making it a different crime than driving a car under the influence.

The proposed ordinance would make riding a bicycle under the influence of alcohol or drugs a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The proposal represents a compromise as the city tries to match its DUI ordinance to state law.

The city code currently bans operating any vehicle under the influence and makes no distinction between those powered by motors and those powered with pedals.

Under state law, operating a motor vehicle under the influence is a fairly serious crime. But riding a bicycle under the influence is legal by state law, because human-powered transport isn’t included in the definition of “vehicle.”

Assistant City Attorney Jan Jarman said that it clogs up prosecution of drunken drivers with multiple convictions, because lawyers have caught on to the mismatch between city and state law and use it to compel judges to ignore prior DUI offenses that occurred in Wichita.

In some cases, that has been used to get penalties pushed from a felony to a misdemeanor, she said.

Jarman told the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board that the proposed ordinance would fix that problem, without letting drunken bicyclists who cause a hazard off the hook.

The proposed ordinance would specify that it’s a crime to ride a bike under the influence on any street, sidewalk, trail, park or playground under city control if it creates a hazard.

To make an arrest, officers could rely on their observations and wouldn’t have to do formal blood-alcohol tests, which require either a trip to jail or a “BAT van,” a roving vehicle that police use to perform field testing, Jarman said. The current draft of the ordinance has a provision that would allow bike riders to demand a blood, breath or urine test, although Jarman said she’s considering taking that out.

Drunken biking wouldn’t count as a DUI conviction on the offender’s record. DUI penalties escalate rapidly based on the number of prior convictions.

Bike board member George Theoharis has threatened to resign if the city legalizes drunken biking. He said he became sensitive to the issue when a drunken bike rider almost ran into him and his girlfriend on their bikes in a park – and seconds later crashed into a pole. He said the bike rider got no punishment other than his injuries, and the officer who responded gave him and the broken bike a ride home in a patrol car.

Theoharis said he also knows a group of women who specifically ride their bikes to a College Hill-area bar because of the reduced likelihood they’ll be arrested for DUI on the way home.

“I don’t think we want those people on the street riding their bikes drunk,” he said.

In most cases, they’d be the ones to get hurt if they swerve into traffic and get hit by a car, he said. “But when that person hits that bicyclist and kills them or maims them or whatever, ’cause that car’s going to win, that person, if they have a conscience, is going to think about that for the rest of their life, and they’re going to be impacted. That’s the problem.”

Board member Tom Lasater, a lawyer, said he’d support fixing the problem the courts are having counting DUI convictions. But he said that’s the only problem he sees that needs to be addressed.

As for bicyclists riding to and from bars, “I’d rather have them on a bike, George, than I would in a car,” he said.

“I don’t want them out there at all,” Theoharis replied.

Jarman said she plans to meet with police and other stakeholders and then bring a revised proposal to the board for its recommendation before it goes to the City Council.

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

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