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In North Dakota, bicyclists beware of boozing it up

FARGO -- Booze and bikes just don't mix on North Dakota streets.

Bicyclists in the region are rarely cited for riding drunk -- local police departments say they recall just two incidents in the past 15 years -- but law enforcement can ticket bikers for driving under the influence, just as if they were driving.

But a biker in Moorhead, or any Minnesota city, can't get pulled over for cycling drunk.

That's because North Dakota law treats a bicycle as a vehicle when it comes to DUI laws, while Minnesota law does not.

Combined with the high bicycle ridership rates in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota's looser laws have spawned bike pub crawls in the summer, an annual "Stupor Bowl Sunday" ride in February and the "Tour de Franzia," a drinking game on bikes with bagged wine.

In Fargo, Great Northern Bicycle Co. organized the "Tour de Pastries" last weekend, a bike tour of five local bakeries.

Joe Curry, who works at the Fargo-Moorhead Community Bicycle Workshop, said he'd like to see a "beer and art gallery crawl" added to the area's offerings for local bikers. But given North Dakotans' propensity to binge drink, he wondered whether it may be better to keep booze and bikes separate.

"It's hard to know if it will be dangerous," Curry said.

The League of American Bicyclists put North Dakota dead last on its ranking of bicycle-friendly states. An estimated 1.5 percent of Fargo workers bike to work, according to the 2011 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The North Dakota Supreme Court settled the drunken biking issue in 2012 when it ruled that a Lincoln man could be prosecuted for drunken driving. Matthew Johnston argued that because he moves a bike with his own power, it shouldn't be considered a vehicle. He said his DUI for crashing into a truck in August 2011 should be tossed out, but the court disagreed.

Drunken cycling laws vary from state to state. Unlike North Dakota's high court, an Illinois appellate court ruled that bicycles are not a vehicle, and therefore cyclists can't be charged with DUI. California legislators passed a separate "cycling under the influence" law in 1985 that hits drunken bikers with a $250 fine.

"You've got to be kidding me," said Ruth Humble, a bartender at The Empire, when told that someone could be charged with DUI on a bike. "You're pretty much screwed no matter what. That makes no sense."

Humble said she occasionally watches drunken people bike away from the bar, and doesn't think much of it.

"If you're going to hurt anybody, you're going to hurt yourself," she said.

Fargo police have ticketed just one drunken biker in the last decade, Sgt. Ryan Dorrheim said. But Dorrheim backed the law as a public safety measure.

"You can easily cause just as many traffic problems, if not a fatal crash, if you're riding a bicycle," he said.

West Fargo Assistant Police Chief Mike Reitan said there's been just one bike DUI in West Fargo in the last 15 years.

Fargo and West Fargo police departments don't keep separate records of DUIs for bicyclists because the law treats a bicycle the same as a car.

Dorrheim and Reitan both said they focus on bigger public safety issues, particularly drunken driving.

"At some point, do you want this person leaving the Hub, plastered, operating a car or a bike?" Dorrheim asked.

But as the city moves to make itself more bike friendly, Dorrheim said local police may start dealing with the issue more often.