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drinking and cycling

At a roaring house party in Toronto last weekend, 23-year-old Charles savoured a last blast of summer.

He downed three beers, a rum and coke and dabbled in a few recreational drugs. By 1 a.m., he called it a night, and in the same way he departs from most summer parties, hopped on his bike and made the 10 minute trek to his apartment.

"It was an effortless and very safe ride home," he says, adding he's driven in worse shape. "If I think I'm actually a hazard to society, I'll either take only side streets and go slow, or just walk."

Though Toronto woman Misty Bailey tried to stop boyfriend Darcy Allan Sheppard from riding his bike after drinking before he died in a crash involving former Ontario attorney-general Michael Bryant this week, many don't consider trying to stop an inebriated friend from biking home.

The logic for being drunk behind handle bars versus drunk behind a steering wheel tends to be quite different, says Charles Akben-Marchand, past president of Citizens for Safe Cycling in Ottawa.

"There are a lot of people out there who think impaired driving only applies to cars," he says "I've heard people say 'Oh wait I can drink tonight because I'm riding a bike.' "

For one thing, you can't be charged with impaired driving if you're intoxicated while riding a bicycle since a bike is not classified as a vehicle under that law, says Sergeant Tim Burrows of the Toronto Police Traffic Services unit. But a drunk cyclist could be charged under the Ontario Highway Traffic Act (which is similar in most provinces) for careless driving, at a fine of $110. And there's always the public intoxication charge which could land you in the drunk tank or cost you at least a $50 fine.

In some areas of the United States, such as California, drunk cyclists can be slapped with a DUI and charged roughly $250.

The legal differences in Canada do play into the idea that it's okay to bike home buzzed, Sgt. Burrows says.

"People think 'Well I know I can't drink and drive a car, but I'm okay to drive a bicycle,' " he says. "Well realistically you're probably worse off because you don't have that protection of a metal body around you."

You're also more likely to hurt yourself than others, adds Mr. Akben-Marchand.

Biking demands a hefty amount of clear judgment, something too much alcohol inevitably blurs, says Robert Mann, a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health who has researched impaired driving.

"Cycling of course is a very complex activity," he says. "It's another task that requires balance, co-ordination and being able to respond to things in your environment quickly and accurately."

Past research on cyclists who have been injured or killed show a large proportion of them had been drinking at the time of their crash, he notes.

People tend to have vastly different ideas of how much alcohol they can drink before driving a car versus riding a bike, says Florence Kellner, a senior research analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. And knowing the law wouldn't do much with them is not enough of a deterrent.

"I think most of the time people think about getting stopped and caught and then fined. They don't think about real accidents because they feel okay," she says.

Certainly drinking and driving is now a firm societal faux-pas, but drinking and cycling receives scant attention mainly because of the lack of high profile instances and a bicycle's absence from impaired driving laws, says Margaret Miller, national president of MADD Canada.

"If you're on a bicycle that doesn't mean you're safe," she says, though adding that even people walking home drunk have met untimely deaths.

Friends should treat a would-be cyclist the same as a would-be driver - accompany them home, call them a cab or let them sleep over.

René Biberstein, a 28-year-old urban planning student at Ryerson University in Toronto, says he used to bike drunk, especially when he started his first undergrad at Concordia in Montreal when he was 18. But since he doesn't drink as much any more, he says he tends to think twice before deciding to ride his bike.

Many people who do drive their bikes drunk would rather not leave them locked up outside the bar overnight or have to pick it up the next day at a friend's place.

"You can't really have a designated driver unless someone else comes without a bike and can ride it home for you," he says. "I think the obvious solution is to just think about it beforehand."