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Can I Get an OWI on a Bicycle?

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OWI on a bicycle, OWI, driving under the influence, Milwaukee criminal defense attorneys, OWI statuteBy: Kenneth Baker

Now that it is officially summer, people in Wisconsin are once again enjoying the outdoors and the warm weather. This change of season sparks an interest for many to get out and enjoy the city in various ways. Some people enjoy playing volleyball at Bradford Beach, some swim in Lake Michigan, and some enjoy the beautiful parks we have here in Milwaukee. What happens though when you ride your bike to one of these locations and drink a few alcoholic beverages?

The State of Wisconsin has long recognized the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol, dating back to 1911. The law then barred any intoxicated person from operating any automobile, motor cycle, or other similar motor vehicle. Through the years, the Wisconsin Legislature has altered the language of the law. But to this day, it remains largely the same. The current OWI statute generally bars any person from operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant. But, what does this mean for bicyclists?

Interestingly, the exact language of the OWI statute makes no mention of the word bicycle. In 1957, bicyclists were specifically left out of the OWI statute when the state legislature determined that a “motor vehicle” does not include bicycles because they are human-powered. The legislature made this distinction because motor vehicles (a vehicle that is self-propelled) are inherently more dangerous. Motor vehicles are capable of driving at higher speeds and thus, pose a greater risk to public safety. Those who drive drunk in a motor vehicle have a greater chance of causing great bodily harm to someone as opposed to a person who is riding a bicycle while drunk. Because bicycles do not rely on a motor, they do not fall within the definition of a motor vehicle for the purposes of the OWI statute.

Additionally, the legislature wanted to focus on maximizing safety on the roadways by targeting those who would be driving a motor vehicle while under the influence. Drunken bicyclists are not a huge concern to public safety and do not pose a serious risk of harm to others. A person who rides a bicycle drunk is most likely going to harm themselves and not others.

In State v. Koeppen, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals determined that a “motor bike” (a bicycle with a motor attached) was a motor vehicle for the purpose of the OWI statute. It further held that because bicycles (not motor bikes) are pedaled and do not rely on a motor, they are not motor vehicles. This distinction furthers the belief that, for the purposes of the OWI statute, bicyclists in Wisconsin cannot be charged with an OWI.

Bicyclists must adhere to some regulations, however. A bicyclist must abide by the rules of the road, namely, following traffic signs, riding on the right side of the road, using turn signals, and using a mounted light when it gets dark. If a bicyclist is stopped for failing to adhere to these rules, he or she may be cited by the police. In terms of being charged with an OWI, however, the bicyclist will most likely be off the hook. Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown, LLP encourages everyone to drink responsibly and to make transportation arrangements in advance of consuming alcohol.

Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown, LLP is here for your complex legal issues. We excel in advocating vigorously for our clients and strive for the best possible outcome. If you have been charged with an OWI, please contact our offices at (414) 271-1440 to schedule a consultation with our skilled Milwaukee criminal defense attorneys.


Wis. Stat. §§1636-1649 (1911)

Wis. Stat. § 346.63 

Wis. Legis.  Council Note to S.B. 99, §340.01(35)(1957)

State v. Koeppen, 356 Wis. 2d 812

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