Road Injury Prevention Litigation Journal
Road Injury Prevention & Litigation Journal
Copyright © 1998 by TranSafety, Inc.
January 1, 1998
TranSafety, Inc.
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Washington Bicyclist's DUI Conviction Overturned

A bicyclist convicted in the Montesano Municipal Court and in the Superior Court of Grays Harbor County of driving a vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs (DUI) appealed on grounds that Washington State's DUI law did not apply to a nonmotorized vehicle. The Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2 ruled that the legislature intended the DUI law to apply only to drivers of motorized vehicles and reversed the lower court decisions.


Daniel Wells rode his bicycle on a back street in the early morning in Montesano, Washington. A police officer saw him swerving and making wide turns. The officer stopped Wells and, based on field tests and observations, arrested him for driving while intoxicated.


The arresting officer testified that Wells' speech was slurred, he smelled of intoxicants, and he was swaying on his feet. When the officer asked Wells to perform field sobriety tests, Wells failed some tests and was "borderline" in his performance on others.

At the jail, Wells waived his Miranda rights. The police did not read him the implied consent warnings for motorists picked up for driving under the influence, because the implied consent form applies only to those arrested for "driving a motor vehicle . . . [or] being in actual physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor. (Emphasis added.)"

When asked to take a breath test, Wells submitted, "[a]pparently fearing he would lose his license if he did not agree." Breath samples showed that Wells' blood-alcohol level was .13. Although Wells admitted he had been drinking, he said he was not drunk. He attributed his swerving to trying to avoid potholes in the road and his performance on sobriety tests to nervousness.

The Montesano Municipal Court convicted Wells of driving while intoxicated. Wells requested a new trial in the Superior Court, Grays Harbor County. That court also found him guilty of DUI. He then moved for another trial, but the court denied the motion.


On appeal, Wells contended the legislature did not intend for the DUI law to apply to bicycle riders. The Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2 considered the appeal by attempting to interpret the statute in the manner that best represented the intent of the legislature.

The court cited former Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 46.61.502, the statute under which Wells was charged. This statute states that "[a] person is guilty of driving while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or any drug if the person drives a vehicle within the state while . . . [intoxicated]. Laws of 1987, ch. 373, 15 2 (emphasis added)."

Title 46 RCW defines both "vehicle" and "motor vehicle." According to RCW 46.04.320, a motor vehicle is "every vehicle which is self-propelled . . . " Under this definition, a bicycle is not a motor vehicle. In 1991 the definition of vehicle was amended to include "every device capable of being moved upon a public highway and in, upon, or by which any persons or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a public highway including bicycles. RCW 46.04.670 (emphasis added)."

The court found that a literal reading of both sections cited above seemed to allow the state to charge a bicyclist with DUI. When the court considered the intent of these and other related statutes, however, it concluded that such a literal reading was inappropriate.

When the court construes a statute, that statute's spirit and intent must prevail over the literal letter of the law. The court must resolve any doubt regarding the legislature's intent in favor of a defendant, since ". . . penal statutes are strictly construed so that only conduct which is clearly within the statutory terms is subject to punitive sanctions."

In its review of the legislature's intent, the court first examined the scope and intent of the various Washington DUI laws. It found that the numerous statutes addressing DUI were "clearly intended" to apply to motorized vehicles only. The court cited various examples of DUI statutes and found consistent references to motor vehicles. Moreover, the court pointed out that the legislature had been careless in drafting the statutes and had used the terms "vehicle" and "motor vehicle" interchangeably. Neither term included a reference to bicycles.

Next the court considered the legislature's attempt to include bicycles in its statutory definition of vehicle. Penalties under the statutes are the same for driving and for being in physical control of a motor vehicle. These penalties include suspension or revocation of a driver's license. Because bicycling does not require a license, this penalty "clearly cannot be imposed on bicyclists."

Lastly, the court addressed policy concerns. When it examined the implied consent law, it found:

Any person who operates a motor vehicle within this state is deemed to have given consent, subject to the provisions of RCW 46.61.506, to a test or tests of his or her breath or blood . . . [if] . . . the arresting officer has reasonable grounds to believe the person had been driving or was in actual physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor. Former RCW 46.20.308(1) (Laws of 1989, ch. 337, 15 8) (emphasis added).

The officers involved in Wells' arrest realized the above provision did not apply to bicyclists.

The legislature's 1991 amendment (part of the Bicycle Safety Act) included bicycles in the definition of "vehicles" and added a section to RCW 43.43. In pertinent part, this section states:

Bicycling is increasing in popularity as a form of recreation and as an alternative mode of transportation. To make bicycling safer, the various law enforcement agencies should enforce traffic regulations for bicyclists. By enforcing bicycle regulations, law enforcement officers are reinforcing educational programs. Bicycling takes more skill than most people realize. Since bicyclists have a low profile in traffic and are unprotected, they need more defensive riding skills than motorists do. RCW 43.43.390.

The purpose of the Bicycle Safety Act was to create a bicycle safety and awareness program. The court found nothing in the Act's history to suggest that the legislature considered the effect on DUI laws of including bicycles in its general definition of vehicle. Between the Bicycle Safety Act's enactment and Wells' DUI arrest, the legislature twice amended the law under which Wells was charged (RCW 46.61.502). The appeals court found no reference in these amendments to changing the definitions of vehicle or motor vehicle.

Citing a California case (Clingenpeel v. Municipal Court of Antelope, 166 Cal.Rptr. 573 (1980)), the appeals court reinforced its conclusion that DUI laws do not apply to bicyclists. This case "noted that the severe penalties imposed on intoxicated drivers of motor vehicles reflect the grave public concern over 'the severe threat to the public safety which is posed by the intoxicated driver' that arises from 'combining sharply impaired physical and mental faculties with a vehicle capable of great force and speed . . . "

The court acknowledged that an intoxicated person riding a bicycle poses a danger to others. This danger, however, is "not of the same magnitude" as the danger posed by an intoxicated driver of a motor vehicle. All DUI statutes weigh such danger as an implicit factor. The law does, however, require bicyclists "to abide by the rules of the road (see RCW 46.61.755)." Under this statute, police officers may cite people riding bicycles "in an unsafe manner, whether due to intoxication or not."

In summary, the appellate court's interpretations of the intent of the legislature, of statute wording, and of public policy did not support the trial court's conclusion that RCW 46.60.502 was meant to include bicyclists. Consequently, the appeals court reversed Wells' DUI conviction.

[For further reference, see City of Montesano v. Wells (Wash App. Div. 2 1995) in West Publishing Vol. 902 Pacific Reporter, 2nd Series, 1266]

Copyright © 1998 by TranSafety, Inc.

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