Restaurateurs adopt new role in curbing drunken driving
Chicago — At several restaurants in Odessa, Texas, managers call a hot line at a local radio station to arrange taxi rides home for customers who have had too much to drink. Restaurateurs pool the cost.
At eating establishments managed by Missouri-based Gilbert-Robinson Inc., customers who have had one too many are given a card explaining why no more drinks can be served and offering to call a cab. ''Thank you for not driving,'' says the card.
And at Sage's, a four-restaurant chain in Chicago, free protein-rich hors d'oeuvres are served with each drink to slow the rate of alcohol absorption and free soft drinks are offered the ''designated driver'' home in any group.
All this activity is part of a new National Restaurant Association (NRA) push to take what its president, Joe R. Lee, calls a more socially responsible position toward alcohol. It's the newest thrust in the nationwide fight to reduce drunken driving on the highways.
''We're particularly discouraging 'all you can drink' offers: two for one, multiple drinks at cutoff time, and unlimited free drinks,'' says Mr. Lee.
Could sales suffer? ''We're in business for the long term and this is the way you stay in business,'' he explains.
Candy Lightner, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), says she considers the new NRA program ambitious and a milestone. ''From what we have seen, this program marks the first time an industry has mounted a united national effort aimed at curbing drunk driving.''
The National Licensed Beverage Association (NLBA) has a similar program, based on an experiment in Michigan, which it hopes to make available to its state affiliates and other interested organizations (for a fee) by late June.
Both the NRA and NLBA training programs teach servers how to give a stoplight rating (green, yellow, or red light) to drinking customers so waiters and bartenders know when to slow down or refuse service and how to deal with customers who have had one too many. Restaurateurs with experience in the field say customers are usually compliant rather than belligerent.
''The main thing is to get the server conscious of evaluating customers when they first make contact with them,'' says NLBA executive director Jerry Murphy. ''We tell him, 'Maybe you're going to get less in tips but you'll have a job.' ''
It has long been illegal for bars and restaurants to serve alcohol to anyone under legal drinking age or to serve more drinks to anyone already intoxicated. Many establishments have lost serving licenses and paid fines for violations.
What is new now is an increasing move to hold bars and restaurants liable as third parties when a patron they have overserved is involved in a highway mishap. Thirty-five states have dramshop laws that allow the victim (and occasionally even the patron) in a drunk-driving accident to sue the bar or restaurant involved. House promotion ads for discount drinks have often been used as key evidence by the plaintiff.
Ronald Beitman, a Cape Cod lawyer who publishes a monthly newsletter in the field and has represented many drunken-driving victims, says there has been at least a threefold increase in the number of such cases pursued during the last year. Not all cases are formally filed and, of those that are, most are settled out of court, he notes. He notes that recently one Colorado establishment was ordered to pay $9.4 million in connection with a drunk-driving accident.
Mr. Lee concedes that all kinds of lawsuits against restaurants are on the rise and that what the NRA is doing should lessen its liability. Mr. Beitman sees a more direct connection: ''This (NRA action) has been a long time in coming, and I think they're only becoming responsible now because the tide of lawsuits is so great there's no way of holding it back.''
NRA and NLBA officials argue that customers are fully responsible for their own behavior. MADD's Candy Lightner disagrees. ''We feel the responsibility has to be shared (with bars and restaurants) . . . particularly in (a customer's) being allowed to drive home. That's like letting someone with a loaded handgun run around taking shots at people.''