Efforts to curb drunk driving are being expanded to put pressure on bar owners to be more responsible for the patrons' actions and could impose new legal restrictions on the bar and restaurant trade, according to civic and business representatives who participated in a seminar in Prince George's County yesterday.
Although representatives of the liquor industry pledged their support in the campaign against drunk driving, they questioned whether new laws were effective and urged that voluntary preventive actions be used instead.
With more than 200 community and business leaders attending the first Prince George's Board of License Commissioners seminar, discussion centered on eliminating drunk driving and defining how and when eating and drinking establishments can reduce consumption of alcoholic beverages without alienating customers.
"When I first became a bartender I believed my only responsibility was to serve liquor," said James E. Peters, who operates Intermission Ltd., a Massachusetts-based organization that holds education seminars for licensed bar and restaurant owners.
"But our responsibility doesn't end there. We have to train employes in preventive measures so they can fully serve the customer," he added.
The gathering of these civic and business groups comes as more states are instituting "dram shop" laws that place the responsibility for acts by intoxicated customers on owners who are considered negligent for serving the customers. Twenty-three states have variations of that law, but Maryland does not.
In addition, speakers yesterday noted other recent legislation including a Massachusetts law in which taverns that serve intoxicated customers can have their licenses revoked for a year for being a "public nuisance."
Massachusetts also this month banned "happy hours" to reduce drinking and driving, a move that received little resistance from owners.
"Dram shop laws are a scary thing because they are closer to a police state," said Bart Osborne, manager of Cagney's Restaurant in Harford County.
Although one liquor store owner said he opposed new legislative restrictions, he encouraged bar owners to work with the community on the problem. "I think more and more people are realizing that drunk driving and just alcohol-related problems in general, are the problems of society as a whole," said Ralph Abelt, chairman of the Prince George's County Alcohol Beverage Committee, a private group of liquor proprietors.
Peters argued against dram shop laws, calling them "clumsy, complicated and make-work for attorneys." Instead he called for preventive measures that he said would, in the long term, be more effective in reducing drunk driving offenses than laws.
"We have enough laws. What we need is education," he added.
One example Peters cited was of an ordinance in Madison, Wis., that requires all bartenders to receive 12 hours of legal and health training before beginning their job. "In Madison they have to learn CPR and are trained to recognize levels of intoxication," he said.
Lt. Gov. Joseph Curran also called for increased preventive measures. "I don't think we need new laws," he said. "I think what we need are more gatherings like this and an equal distribution of responsibility."
Curran lauded enforcement and civic group efforts at curtailing crime, citing a tripling of drunk driving arrests since 1980 and noting that deaths related to drunk driving have fallen 30 percent since then.