Waiters at the Colonel Brooks Tavern in Northeast Washington wear buttons that read, "I don't let my friends drive drunk." Above the wooden bar and bottles of liquor there are posters that echo the same theme.
Tavern manager Helene Gates said she began a "designated driver program" at Colonel Brooks last May in an effort to prevent patrons from leaving intoxicated to drive home. The program encourages groups that come into the tavern to designate one person as the driver who will not be drinking alcohol. As a courtesy, the driver can have a free dessert and all the nonalcoholic beverages he or she can drink for the evening.
"If a group has a round or two of drinks right away, I will go to that table and ask who's driving," Gates said. She said she trains her servers to do the same. "If my servers feel awkward I tell them to make me the heavy."
So far, customers have not objected, Gates said. She explained that if her servers decide someone who is drinking alone is not capable of driving home, a cab will be called for the individual.
In the District and at least 38 states, not including Maryland, a business can be liable for knowingly and willingly serving alcohol to an intoxicated customer who later causes a traffic accident. In Virginia, the liability of restaurant and bar owners is unclear because of differing interpretations of state law in recent court decisions.
This week the Washington Regional Alcohol Program will announce a program called "One for the Road -- Make it a Designated Driver." The program will attempt to organize restaurants and bars in the District, Montgomery County and Northern Virginia in a designated driver program.
"Restaurants across the country are participating in designated driver programs and there are dozens and dozens of places in Maryland, Virginia and the District," said Jeff Prince, senior director of the National Restaurant Association.
Increased public awareness -- because of alcohol-related traffic deaths and the formation of groups such as MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) -- have prompted legislatures around the country to raise drinking ages and enact tough drunk-driving laws aimed at establishing liability for the actions of drivers who drink.
Lewis Wiener, a 23-year-old law student at American University who has served as a designated driver, sees the need for such a program. "People have five or six drinks and think nothing of hopping into their car and driving home," he said.
Some civil suits involving drunk-driving accidents have recently resulted in large damage awards. In March, for example, the U.S. government paid $250,000 in an out-of-court settlement to the family of a driver who was killed in a car crash on Lee Highway caused by a soldier who was driving after leaving a military club at Arlington Hall Station intoxicated.
A rapid increase in lawsuits is among the reasons that insurance companies have raised premiums on the insurance that restaurants and bar owners can buy to protect themselves from such suits. Because liability insurance is not mandatory in the District, operators of many small establishments such as Colonel Brooks Tavern say they cannot afford the thousands of dollars it can cost annually and therefore do not carry it.
Rumors, a popular bar at 19th and M streets in downtown Washington, began its designated driver program in May. In addition to safety, the program offers patrons another incentive: a designated driver will to be selected as the winner of a new car in a December raffle.
Rumors and Colonel Brooks Tavern serve a lot of students whose transportation needs become a factor when drinking. Colonel Brooks is located near Catholic University and Rumors is near George Washington University. Gates and Wienerpointed out that many students would like to use Metro trains for social nights out. But the trains stop running at midnight and the last call in most bars is at 1:30 a.m. during the week and 2:30 a.m. on the weekends. The problem deserves consideration, they said.
When a customer at Rumors serves as a driver, he receives a designated driver button and membership card. Each time he comes into Rumor's, he signs a manager's book and receives a raffle ticket. So far Rumor's has signed up 200 designated drivers, but only a few have become regular drivers. Rumors plans to continue the program after the contest ends.
In addition to the designated driver program, Rumors' bartenders are certified in TIPS, training for the intervention and procedures by servers of alcohol, a course that teaches servers how to deal with intoxicated patrons and which helps keep insurance costs down.
According to one restaurant manager, for many small restaurant and bar owners the designated driver program will create a defense in case they are sued. The buttons, posters, napkins and service procedures by bartenders and servers would become proof that the establishment did everthing in its power to prevent a customer from leaving drunk, he said..
"It's good business, the public wants it, and if in fact there is a suit, there is a better chance of the business winning the case," said Joyce Heineman, Executive Secretary for the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, which has been promoting a designated driver program for two years.
"If there is any bar that doesn't participate in a designated driver program and stop someone from leaving their establishment and driving drunk, they are asking to be sued and asking to be bankrupt," said Rudy Manili, a restaurant manager in the District.
For Colonal Brooks' Gates, the designated drivers program has been an educational process. At home she makes buttons from cut-out copies of the original, designed by a former waitress who also drew the posters.
"I remember when I was waitressing, and the first time a guy ordered milk I almost lost it," she said. Now she is concerned about the amount of liquor a person consumes. "I am aware of it, and you need to be aware. I teach people how to drink and be responsible."
Gates likes an occasional drink and remembers when she was a bit tipsy one evening while celebrating at the Colonel Brooks Tavern with a friend. As she was leaving one of her waitresses stopped them and asked who was driving.
They took a cab home.