What it Means to “Operate” a Motor Vehicle in Drunk Driving Cases

Drunk driving is illegal. This we all know. In Michigan though, the terminology is known as “Operating While Intoxicated” (OWI)rather than Driving Under the Influence (DUI). However, “operating” is not synonymous with “driving.” Sometimes, people use their vehicle as shelter to sleep or even to charge their cell phone or sit and listen to music.

In certain circumstances, a person in a parked vehicle can be considered to be operating the vehicle. Additionally, if those individuals have been drinking, they may be subject to arrest.

What is considered operating a motor vehicle in Michigan?

So, when is sitting in the driver seat of a non-moving vehicle considered “operating”? According to Michigan law, this happens once a person puts the vehicle in a position posing a significant risk of causing a collision.

Some of the factors to consider are whether or not the engine is on and the vehicle in gear. If the engine is on and the transmission is in gear, even if only momentarily, the vehicle is in a position to cause a collision. On the other hand, if the car is parked, it is not movable and thus not able to cause a collision.

Likewise, if the engine is off it is not likely to cause a collision. Therefore, you are unable to obtain a DUI/OWI “parked car” conviction.

Can you get an OWI/DUI on a bicycle?

One common assumption is that you can only get arrested for operating if the vehicle is motorized. While this is true in Michigan, other states enforce different laws regarding riding a classic bicycle while intoxicated.

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For instance, while Michigan classifies “operating” as operating a motorized vehicle, our neighbors Indiana and Ohio define drunk bicycle riding as “driving under the influence.” Therefore, it’s important to remain cautious of the laws when you cross state borders because they could differ in a life-changing way.

Can I get an OWI/DUI “parked car” conviction?

You should remain mindful that the police do not have to catch a person “operating.” For example, if a police officer comes upon an intoxicated person seated in the driver seat of a parked car, and that person admits to driving to that location prior to parking, the officer can make an arrest based on the person’s admission to driving. Generally speaking, sitting behind the wheel in a non-moving vehicle is not considered “operating.”