FIRST THE mothers got angry (MADD), then the students banded together (SADD)--even football players formed a coalition (FADD). And now, joining their ranks to help combat drunk driving is the National Restaurant Association.
An NRA task force has been formed, programs are being developed and a slew of recommendations has been drafted to encourage the association's 100,000 members to take an active role in solving the problem of drunk drivers.
However, responsible beverage service alone won't alleviate this problem; the primary onus still lies on the individual, says Jeff Prince, spokesman for the association. But, it is hoped that NRA's support will help "convince consumers that drunk driving is antisocial behavior," said Prince.
"We feel that the NRA has finally acknowledged their responsibility in the drunk driving issue," says MADD founder and president Candy Lightner, who adds that she hopes to work jointly with the association on Project Graduation (an education program emphasized during prom season).
While many restaurants have already taken the initiative--hanging up safety posters, putting out table tent cards, hiring taxicabs for intoxicated patrons--the association backed the efforts, says Prince, because it was hearing from its state chapters reports of "hostile judicial decisions" against restaurants and pending legislation to more strictly regulate alcohol sales. In addition, according to Prince, establishments are anxious to shed the image that "in order to make a buck, restaurants encourage drinking."
Drunkenness, says Prince, costs restaurants money. At least that's what has been happening recently, as the finger is being increasingly pointed at restaurants in drunk driving accidents. As a result, some restaurants are faced with climbing liability insurance (according to a Nation's Restaurant News poll, out of 100 restaurants randomly surveyed, 20 percent had their insurance premiums raised).
What concerns restaurants is third-party liability. A simple example: A patron goes to a bar, has a few drinks and leaves. He is in an automobile accident. The injured party sues the bar. (Liability can span all types of incidents; Robert Palmer, associate general counsel of NRA, says members have even gotten sued by injured individuals in what he calls "the dance floor cases" where intoxicated customers have collided with others while dancing.)
Prince of NRA says he "can't buy the idea that someone who's not there is responsible." But state governments can't buy Prince's idea, since about 23 state legislatures have passed dram shop laws, which hold liquor licensees liable for injuries inflicted on third parties.
In 17 states, common laws--laws developed by the court--also establish that third-party plaintiffs have the right to sue. (The District of Columbia has common-law liability. While Virginia and Maryland have neither dram shop law nor common law, dram shop legislation was recently proposed in Maryland, according to Palmer.) These laws are separate from liquor laws which in just about every state prohibit establishments from serving an intoxicated individual, says Palmer.
In addition to being the growing target of liability cases, restaurants face restrictions that states are considering, such as raising the drinking age to 21, abbreviating the hours alcohol may be sold, increasing taxes on alcohol and raising beverage license fees.
Both liability and proposed restrictions have reached such a point, in fact, that restaurateurs, attorneys and insurance executives gathered this January in Boston for the First Northeast Conference on Alcohol-Server Liability. And two weeks ago, Steak & Ale sponsored a conference here that addressed the issue of retailing alcohol in the current wave of drunk driving crackdowns.
NRA's recommendations are not legal in nature; Prince says he disagrees with MADD's philosophy that more stringent laws will curb the problem. Instead they are geared to "change societal attitudes" and increase public awareness. They include:
* Discouraging all-you-can-drink offers, two-for-one offers and other promotions "which are perceived as fostering overconsumption," says Prince.
Lightner of MADD says elimination of such offers is "one of our main concerns as an organization." In its stead, some establishments are finding that promotions for unusual non-alcoholic beverages can be very profitable. "Mocktails," as some restaurants are calling them, can sell for $2 and up. Still, some local bar managers feel that discouraging alcohol promotions doesn't attack the problem. Farr Baik, general manager of Annie Oakley's in Georgetown, says that the bar's promotion of half-price drinks for women on Tuesday nights was instituted to pick up business on a traditionally slow evening. But drunkenness is more of a problem on weekends, says Baik, when the bar doesn't have any promotions.
* Encouraging and developing workshops to teach food service managers and their staffs about situations that could lead to drunk driving.
The gist of the educational program, which NRA hopes will be instituted in states nationwide by May, would be to teach staff about state laws, the physical effects of alcohol, signs of overconsumption, prevention of over-intoxication and how to deal with intoxicated people. Some university faculties are studying such programs, and a few chain restaurants and city governments have instituted mandatory training programs.
A frontrunner in the alcohol-server training field is James Peters, owner of a Northampton, Mass., consulting business called Intermission Unlimited. An ex-bartender and bar manager (who worked in several D.C. bars), Peters realized that some of his work practices--as well as his coworkers'--were negligent. He'd give his best friends extra-strong drinks; he thought that he should watch out for hard-liquor drinkers and not the beer and wine crowd; when he considered shutting someone off, he would wait until the patron was seriously intoxicated; he'd give poorer service to non-alcohol drinking customers.
Peters' four-point program is geared to attack those practices and to convince establishments that when a patron loses his ability to make a rational decision, it's up to the staff to make the environment safe for others.
But many bars find confrontation a tricky business. "No one has had too much to drink when they've had too much to drink," says Steve Micheletti, general manager of Rumors on 19th and M streets NW. Micheletti says the job of dealing with intoxicated--and possibly abusive--individuals is touchy because bartenders must juggle the establishment's responsibility with the patron's invasion of privacy. Micheletti says bartenders are instructed to give intoxicated patrons free coffee and pay for cabs to take them home, but a bartender "cannot reach in someone's pockets for their keys."
* Promoting designated driver and alternative transportation programs.
A designated driver program works like this, says NRA's Prince: A party of four goes into a restaurant. One person informs the server he will be responsible for transporting the others home and he does not drink that evening. The restaurant "rewards" him with free non-alcoholic drinks.
Alternative transportation can mean that a group of restaurants contracts with a cab company to service an intoxicated patron, a bar employe will drive a patron's car home, or the establishment agrees to "babysit" a patron's car overnight. During the Christmas/New Year's season, a host of transportation alternatives were available in D.C.
In addition to the above, two other recommendations endorsed by NRA are:
* Actively promoting food sales at the bar to reduce the blood alcohol level.
* Re-enforcing the importance of checking ID cards.
And the response from NRA members? Since restaurateurs are "very conscious" of their public image, says the association's Palmer, he believes the feedback will be positive.