Electric Currents

Drunk Drivers and Electric Bicycles

Aug 02, 2011

Should someone who has lost their drivers license be allowed to drive an electric-assist bicycle?


Low wattage electric scooter similar to that being driven by Denise Baj, Ocean City, N.J.

Last month, EV World asked readers the following question: Should someone with a suspended driver's license be permitted to operate an electric-assist bicycle? A total of 878 readers responded.

The answer would seem pretty straightforward: of course they should. What's the harm of letting someone who may be lost their license, perhaps due to a DUI conviction, from getting around town on an electric-assist bicycle.

As would be expected, the majority (70.84%) of respondents agreed. Only 20.5% disagreed, while 8.66% weren't sure; and that puts the undecideds and the "no" respondents in the same league as many American, Canadian and English municipalities.

As strange as it might sound, there are communities that consider, in the case of Driving Under the Influence convictions, a 60 pound, half-horsepower electric bicycle the legal equivalent of a ton-and-a-half, 300 hp automobile. Permit me to cite a few examples.

OCEAN CITY, NJ - A convicted drunken driver says the city is harassing her over the electric bicycle she rides around town.

Denise Baj, 51, said she rode her bike for more than a year without trouble. But when she moved from the city's sparsely populated south end to the north end - a few blocks from the Ninth Street Police Station - she was stopped and ticketed twice last year for driving an unregistered motor vehicle.

Ms. Baj lost her license due to a DUI conviction.

SPRINGFIELD, OR. -- If there’s one thing Paul McClain and the Springfield Police Department agree on, it’s this: A court will have to decide if McClain needs to get his driver’s license back before he may legally power up his electric bicycle and ride it along Springfield’s streets.

Mr. McClain was cited for possession of medical marijuana, but lost his license due to driving without insurance.

BRIDGEWATER, ONTARIO - Electric-assist bicycles count as motor vehicles so don't get caught riding one if you're a prohibited driver .That's the message that came out of Bridgewater provincial court May 10 in the case of a man caught riding such a vehicle twice in three days last summer.

Thomas Allan Mailman, 57, defended himself on two counts of prohibited driving. The retired teacher told the court he drove the bike for 13 months between early July 2009 and the end of July 2010, putting 3,700 kilometres on it. He bought it after losing his licence for a year on a drunk driving conviction.

OLDHAM, LANCASHIRE - A man has been convicted after twice being arrested for drink-driving . . . on his electric bike.

Anthony Dancer, 23, was pulled over on his 15mph Fun Nine Electric scooter twice in a month after drinking sessions with friends. But motorised bicycles, which do not need a licence, tax or insurance, are not covered under current drink-drive laws. So Dancer was prosecuted under a rarely-used Victorian law dating back to 1872, originally drawn up to deal with carriages.

Curiously, much of the 1872 Licensing Act has long since been superseded, but parts remain in effect, making it an offense for being drunk in public and for being drunk in charge of a horse-drawn carriage, which the court reinterpreted to include bicycles.

Again, it would seem that there is a significant difference between being responsible for a pair of 1000 pound draft animals, and the attendant carriage, and a 30 pound bicycle, but apparently some jurisdictions don't see it that way.

One that appears to is Clearwater, Florida where a couple of young entrepreneurs at Sunset Scooters are advertising their electric scooters as a transportation substitute for automobiles to whose who have lost their driving privileges due to DUI offenses. Even the executive director of the Northwest Florida chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Todd Rosenbaum is quoted as saying, "Certainly, if people need transportation, electric bikes are a good option."

He did, however, criticize the pair for advertising them as "DUI SCOOTERS."

He added that "calling them DUI scooters sends the wrong message to the community. It's telling people the DUI is not a big deal. It is a big deal."

Electric-assist bicycles and scooters are a relatively new phenomenon worldwide, largely having sprung up in the last decade and a half. They pose conundrums for policy makers and law enforcement officials because they just don't seem to come under the statutory definition of a "motor vehicle." But clearly, they have a motor, albeit a small one, typically one horsepower or less. Any damage they might do will, most likely, be to the rider themselves. The more of them that get bought and more the issue of who can ride them, when, and where will have to be dealt with. Relying on 100 year old carriage laws and statutory ambiguities will have to be replaced with reasoned and reasonable legal frameworks. Beyond the question of should DUI offenders be able to use them, is the question of their use on public bike paths and lanes, another contentious issue that periodically raises its head with some communities allowing them, while others ban them.

If we are going to encourage people to use more sustainable forms of transportation that are more human scaled, then we need to reach a consensus on these issues, instead of the patchwork quilt of laws and statutes we currently see being enforced. Certainly, individual jurisdictions: villages, towns, cities, counties, states, provinces, etc., should have some say in the matter, but there also needs to be some level of guidance at a higher level, rather than ordinances based on the whims, misapprehensions and biases of local decision makers and law enforcement officials.

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