WASHINGTON – One in three fatal bicycle accidents in Maryland is linked to alcohol use, according to a Johns Hopkins University study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The study of Maryland bicyclists also found that someone with a blood- alcohol level of .08 was 20 times more likely than a sober biker to be fatally or seriously injured. Bicyclists with a .02 level, the amount of alcohol in about one drink, were six times more likely to be injured, it said.
The report was done to make the public aware of a problem most don’t even know exists, said Susan P. Baker, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and co-author of the study.
“People, in general, are not aware of the fact that a substantial percentage of bicyclists injured in accidents have been drinking,” Baker said.
She said she hoped the study would help people realize how much alcohol can affect them, and she encouraged the use of state traffic drinking laws to be used against bicyclists who had been drinking.
But police and prosecutors that while state drunken driving laws could be applied to bicyclists, it almost never happens.
“I’ve never seen anyone prosecuted for drunk driving on a bike, and I’ve been here since 1975,” said Howard Merker, deputy state’s attorney in Baltimore County. He did say he thought a bicyclist could be charged under the state’s drunken-driving law.
Maryland State Police Cpl. Rob Moroney said he knew could recall only one successful drunken driving case against a bicyclist. A charge of negligent or reckless driving would be much more likely against a cyclist, he said.
Dr. Guohua Li, the lead author of the study, said Maryland mandates that anyone using public roads must obey the traffic laws. In theory, a cyclist exceeding Maryland’s legal blood-alcohol level of .10 could be charged with driving while intoxicated, he said.
But Montgomery County State’s Attorney Doug Gansler said that, even if you could charge a cyclist with DWI, it might not be appropriate to use laws aimed at drivers of faster, heavier, deadlier cars to prosecute someone on a bike.
The intoxicated cyclist is “someone you’d want to get some help, not incarcerate,” Gansler said.
The study did not specifically look at other states, but Li said he believes that intoxicated cyclists in most states are charged only with misdemeanors such as public intoxication or disorderly conduct.
Nationally, more than 20,000 people are hospitalized and 500,000 people are treated in emergency rooms for bicycling injuries every year, according to the study. Sixteen percent of those hospitalized and 8 percent of those treated had elevated blood-alcohol levels, according to reports cited in the study.
The study examined records from the medical examiner’s office and the University of Maryland Medical Center. Researchers also went back to the scene of accidents and surveyed bicyclists who were riding by at the same time as the earlier crash.
It found that a major factor in the injuries was the “”dismal rate of helmet usage” by bicyclists who had alcohol in their system: Only 5 percent of those who had been drinking wore helmets.
“I’m not surprised,” said Randy Swart, director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. “If they have that little regard for their own body, they probably aren’t going to wear helmets.”
Maryland has required bicyclists under age 16 to wear helmets since 1995. Howard County has required helmets since 1990 for those under 17, and Montgomery County in 1991 mandated helmets for riders under 18.
The study also found that 30 percent of injured cyclists who had alcohol in their systems also had a history of alcohol-impaired driving. Chris Carney, a service manager for a Towson bicycle shop, said he has known a number of people who rode bikes drunk after losing their driving privileges.
“I’d advise against it,” said Carney, who would urge tipsy cyclists to call a cab. “It takes just as much coordination to ride a bike, if not more.”
“Riding a bike requires a higher level of psychomotor skills and physical coordination than driving a car, so alcohol has an even stronger effect on bicyclists than drivers,” he said.
Baker said that, if anything, the study’s findings are conservative. The report only looked at accidents during the day, even though earlier Johns Hopkins studies found that 56 percent of fatal bicycling injuries and 32 of serious bicycling injuries occur between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m.