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February 28th, 2007 Julie Sabatier | News Stories
 

Wheels of Justice

State penalties for drunken bicyling are the same as for drunken driving, but local arrest rates aren't.

     
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Dawn Slawta's vehicle smashed into Mark Grover's 1994 Ford Ranger pickup just after midnight Feb. 8 on Northeast Skidmore Street.

Grover, 44, didn't sustain major injuries and was released from Multnomah County Jail after being cited on the misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence of intoxicants.

Slawta was still in serious condition at Legacy Emanuel Hospital as of Tuesday, Feb. 27. Police spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz says she could face a similar charge as Grover with the same penalties, though her severe injuries may mean the DA's office won't charge her.

If she faces a charge, it would be biking under the influence of intoxicants, because Slawta, 25, was riding a bicycle when police say she failed to stop at the intersection of Northeast Skidmore Street and 15th Avenue.

Police say both Grover and Slawta, who was wearing dark clothing and riding without a light or helmet, appeared to have blood-alcohol levels over Oregon's legal limit of .08 percent. (The results of the pair's blood-alcohol tests won't be disclosed until the case is adjudicated, says Schmautz.)

Oregon law treats motorists and bicyclists the same because the law considers a bike a vehicle, meaning conviction for drunken driving or cycling can result in a maximum $6,250 fine, a year in jail and a suspended driver's license.

Portland had 24 bicycle fatalities between 1995 and 2005, three of which involved cyclists over the legal blood-alcohol limit, according to Greg Raisman, traffic safety program specialist at Portland's Office of Transportation.

Deputy Multnomah County District Attorney Bret Schopper, who screened all drunken driving and cycling cases in the county from last August to last December, says there were two charges for drunken cycling in that five-month stretch compared with 1,313 for drunken driving.

"It's not like [officers] ignore it, but the windows of opportunity to have contact with bicyclists are less because most officers are doing their patrol in cars," says Schmautz, who pointed out that bike cops mostly patrol in urban, congested areas during daylight hours.

The number is especially low considering Portland's bike-happy reputation. Portland transportation officials calculate there were 12,000 daily bike trips in 2006 across the Hawthorne, Steel, Broadway and Burnside bridges alone. And U.S. Census data shows the percentage of trips by bike in Portland is 50 percent higher than in Seattle and twice that of San Francisco.

Some Portland bike events, like the karaoke-themed pub crawls and the monthly Midnight Mystery Ride, do seem to encourage riders to drink alcohol. The Ride's website defines the gathering: "We meet, greet, gather and drink. At midnight, we ride."

"We're not going around with the point of getting messed up," says 26-year-old Midnight Mystery Rider Gabriel Amadeus Tiller, "[But] you're not endangering other people's lives [on a bike]."

Jonathan Maus, who moderates the popular blog bikeportland.org, takes a different tack.

"A drunk bicyclist is not going to cause the same physical harm to someone else as a drunk driver," Maus says. "But...a drunk bicyclist could hit a pedestrian, and if they are hit by a car, that driver has to live with the emotional impact of killing a bicyclist."

 
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