On New Year's Eve this year, the Grand Hyatt in downtown Washington is taking no chances.
Before driving home, revelers can sober up with free food and coffee. If they prefer to take the subway, they can pick up a free Metro farecard at the hotel's nightclub. Or they can simply do as a hotel promotional campaign advises and "take an elevator home" -- to a room offered at a special weekend rate.
It's all part of the seasonal campaign to rid the roads of drunk drivers, an effort made with extra care this year as a result of a recent court ruling that makes Washington restaurant and bar owners liable in some drunken driving cases.
Earlier this month, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that a restaurant owner who serves alcoholic beverages to a visibly drunk customer can be sued for damages if the customer is involved in an accident after he leaves the restaurant.
"You just can't encourage that kind of drinking anymore," said Stuart Long, a lawyer who owns several local bars and serves on the board of the Washington Restaurant Beverage Association. "We have a training program for our bartenders to spot problem drinkers, and we all have a policy of calling cabs and paying for them. If we had to drive someone home ourselves, we'd do it."
The heightened concern of local bar and restaurant owners comes at a time when some safety experts say public interest in the drunken driving issue has flagged. In addition, safety experts are concerned that higher overall speeds on the nation's highways are contributing to a slight increase in drunken driving deaths, particularly among teen-agers.
The National Safety Council predicts that 380 to 480 people will die in traffic accidents starting from 6 p.m. yesterday to midnight on Sunday, up from 356 people last year. Alcohol is cited as a factor in more than 50 percent of all automobile crashes.
"When education goes down, the fatalities go up," said Pamela Kostermayer, a board member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD. "I think people are tired of hearing about someone's child. The repetition seems to numb you and the shock factor wears off."
To help keep local fatalities from climbing, the Washington Regional Alcohol Program has launched its ninth annual SoberRide campaign, which supplies free taxi rides home during the holiday season to drivers who have been drinking. The number for the service, which runs through Jan. 3, is 578-HOME.
In addition, Metro will run until 2 a.m. on New Year's Day.
In the view of most safety experts, national concern over drunken driving peaked in the early 1980s, prompted by several studies that named alcohol-related traffic accidents as the leading cause of death for teen-agers in America. The movement gathered steam through the efforts of groups such as MADD, whose members offered poignant testimony about children, wives and husbands killed by drunken drivers.
In response to such lobbying, many states raised the drinking age to 21 and passed stiff penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol. The District, Maryland and Virginia have all set 21 as the minimum drinking age. President Reagan convened the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving, which drew up a nationwide plan for combating a problem that kills more than 20,000 people each year.
There is some evidence that the message may be wearing off. In 1986, 21,200 people died in alcohol-related traffic accidents, up from 19,876 in 1985. While safety experts blame part of the increase on heavier traffic and higher speeds, they also fear that public awareness could be diminishing.
"There has been less media attention to the issue because it is not considered breaking news," said Chuck Hurley, vice president for public policy of the National Safety Council.
More alarming is the trend among teen-agers. According to the National Commission Against Drunk Driving, juvenile drunken driving deaths increased 13 percent between 1985 and 1986. In Virginia, 52 teen-agers ages 15 through 19 died in alcohol-related traffic accidents in 1986, a 30 percent increase from 1985, according to Sarah Strout, administrator of the Northern Virginia Chapter of MADD.
"They haven't been receptive to the message yet," Strout said. "You can tell them, but whether they receive it and believe it is another thing."
Moreover, many states have yet to act on the recommendations of the presidential commission. In Maryland, for example, a driver is not considered intoxicated if his blood alcohol level is below 0.13 percent, one of the highest levels in the nation. In the District and Virginia, the level is 0.10 percent.
Local drunken driving statistics are somewhat inconclusive. In the District, for example, 10 persons died in alcohol-related traffic accidents in 1986, down from 27 in 1985, according to the Washington Regional Alcohol Program. The number of fatalities also declined in Montgomery County, where 29 people died in 1986, down from 38 the year before.
In Fairfax, however, 29 people died in alcohol-related traffic accidents in 1986, up from 25 in 1985. In Prince George's County, 52 people died in such accidents in 1986, the same number as the year before.