Washington — Larry Rivers, a dispatcher at C&F Towing in northern Virginia, is gearing up for New Year's Eve. He expects his drivers will tow a lot of people and their cars home tonight. But C&F won't make a penny. ``This is a free tow,'' he says. ``If we can take at least one intoxicated person home, there's a possibility of saving a life.'' And that, he says, is profit enough.
Across the country, grass roots companies like C&F Towing are trying to take the danger out of New Year's Eve. Restaurants, hotels, taxicabs, tow trucks, and various corporate sponsors are working on ways to keep customers sober or, failing that, deliver them home safely.
The effort comes amid two disturbing trends concerning drunk driving. First, after years of declining, the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities rose in 1986, and is expected to rise this year as well. In part, says Jeffrey Prince at the National Restaurant Association, that is because the anti-drunk-driving movement ``has matured and people may be getting a little bored with it.''
Second, 20 states may raise their speed limits to 65 miles per hour, and seven have already done so. ``Speed is quite often involved in alcohol traffic deaths,'' says Anne Russell, spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). As a result, the National Safety Council expects there will be more traffic fatalities this New Year's Weekend than last: as many as 480 this year, vs. 356 last year.
To reverse these trends, those at the front line are tackling intoxication with a battery of common-sense and creative measures.
Hotels and restaurants, for example, are coordinating to keep drunk drivers off the road. The Holiday Inn at Old Towne, Alexandria, Va. offers hotel rooms at $50 a night, far below the normal rate, to encourage people to ``take the elevator home,'' as general manager William Chrietzberg puts it.
The Holiday Inn has told several restaurants in the area that the offer applies not just to people who celebrate at a party in the hotel, but anyone. Bullfeathers, a nearby restaurant, has been shipping partiers off to the Holiday Inn ``for three or four years now,'' says manager Tony Aleman. Each year, he says, the number grows.
Restaurants, taverns, convenience stores, and other businesses that sell alcohol have a real incentive to keep customers sober, or at least off the road. This year alone, several state courts have ruled that commercial servers of alcohol may be liable if an intoxicated customer has an accident. In all, 40 states have provisions, if read liberally, that hold servers accountable, according to the National Alcoholic Beverage Control Association.
Consequently, restaurants are formally training their waiters, waitresses, and bartenders to spot signs of trouble (glassy eyes, erratic behavior, etc.) and slow down the service. Each of three Sage's restaurants in Chicago, for example, gives free non-alcoholic beverages to ``designated drivers'' - a person in the group who is responsible for driving others home. If no one is available, the restaurant pays for a taxi home, says Nancy Sage, who helps her father run the restaurants.
Because of multimillion-dollar liability awards and skyrocketing insurance costs, a whole cottage industry to train alcohol servers has sprung up. The largest program, called Training for Intervention Procedures by Servers of Alcohol (TIPS), has trained 75,000 people in the last four years, according to marketing director Michael Leydon.
Increasingly, these programs make business sense. Texas and Maine have passed laws exempting restaurants from liability if their servers have gone through approved training programs. Several insurance companies offer lower rates to establishments that send servers through the eight-hour TIPS course, says Mr. Leydon. Moreover, several states and cities - including Delaware, Oregon, and Utah, Boston, Chicago, and Las Vegas - require bars and restaurants to put their servers through a formal training course.
Even businesses that don't have a direct monetary interest in saving lives are doing so.
Last year, taxis in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area gave 790 people a free ride home under the ``Sober Cab'' program. Golden Valley Health Center, a substance-treatment center, and the American Automobile Association, picked up the tab. The cost is expected to be much higher this year, says spokeswoman Linda Rollings, since more people know about it.
CompCare, an Irvine, Calif. treatment center, has organized a ``care cab'' service in 35 to 40 cities, says Virginia Colarossi, who oversees the program. Since the service was organized seven years ago, it has gotten 57,000 people home with free taxi rides - 12,000 last year alone, she says. Philanthropy has even gotten competitive, she says, noting that the Department of Transportation has compiled an entire book of companies sponsoring taxi services over New Year's Eve.
For those who don't want to leave their cars at the bar, they can probably be towed. Last year, in a pilot program, the Towing and Recovery Association of America recruited towers in 12 states to give free tows home. This year, the service will be offered in 30 states. (To find out whether one's area is covered, call toll-free at 800-327-8542.)
The service, which is also available on the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Labor Day, will cost the industry a pretty sum if, as planned, it expands into all 50 states. This year, Michael McGovern, the association's executive director, figures towers will give away $16,000 worth of rides. But Mr. McGovern, noting that a tow operator ``is closer to the problem of drunk drivers than anyone else except the ambulance,'' says it's worth it to deliver people before they are hurt. ``If it costs $2,000 or $2 million, we'll do what it takes.''