Restaurant owners jump aboard antidrunk-driving wagon. Some servers provide free soft drinks to drivers, pay for cabs

Restaurant owners and managers across the United States are starting to take a stand against excessive drinking. They are spurred, not just by state laws, court decisions, and higher insurance costs, but by rising awareness of the social costs of drunk driving. Among the tactics they are using to keep drunks from taking the wheel:

Serving free soft drinks and hors d'oeuvres to a nondrinking member of a group so he can drive the others home.

Training bartenders and servers to detect drunk customers and keep them from having another drink.

Providing alternate transportation for intoxicated customers to get home. In Odessa, Texas, a group of restaurant owners have formed ``Tipsy Taxi'' -- a service that pays for customers to take a cab.

Shifting the restaurant's focus, in some cases, away from alcohol toward food.

``There is no real reason we had to do these things,'' says Ted Balestreri, president of the National Restaurant Association, which held its annual meeting here last week. ``It's because it's morally right.'' The 10,000-member association last year began an extensive program to prevent drunk driving.

``We do have a responsibility to expend our best efforts to avoid that [drunk driving],'' says Eugene Sage, a member and owner of four Chicago-area restaurants. ``MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving], SADD [Students Against Drunk Driving] -- all of these groups are right.''

As part of his awareness program, Mr. Sage rigorously trains his staff to detect overserved customers.

Servers are warned to offer the customer food and the bartender to be conspicuously absent. ``We have taken [car] keys,'' says another Chicago restaurateur. ``We'll give 'em 20 bucks to take a cab.'' And if a customer who is overimbibing insists on another drink, the restaurateur sometimes waters it down and doesn't charge the customer.

The push is part of the emerging concern about drunk driving in general, says Norma Phillips, president of MADD. ``The whole new awareness that is sweeping the country is exciting.''

Awareness among restaurateurs blossomed a little over a year ago because of publicity about drunk driving, the threat of lawsuits, and escalating premiums on liability insurance, says Michael J. Grisanti, who directed the restaurant association's campaign. Mr. Grisanti owns several restaurants himself in Kentucky, Indiana, and Nebraska.

Over the years, laws in 23 states, and courts in general, have established that alcohol servers can be held responsible for injuries caused by drunk drivers. MADD supports this concept of third-person liability and wants to expand it to each state. ``We have to do everything that's possible to save lives,'' says Mrs. Phillips, ``and third-party liability is a way of doing that.''

But restaurateurs claim these legal precedents have gone too far already and have pushed their premiums for liability insurance through the roof.

``Our liability insurance has quadrupled without any claims'' except workmen's compensation, says Joe Carlucci, president of Carlucci Restaurant in Chicago. One restaurateur was sued recently, Mr. Carlucci says, by a customer who had one drink, did the same in four other bars, and then crashed his motorcycle.

Carlucci says he applauds MADD's efforts to raise social consciousness about drinking. ``On the other hand, it's not fair to hold me responsible for a person's behavior,'' he argues.

The National Restaurant Association is pushing states to restrict the liability of alcohol servers in drunk-driving accidents. Whatever happens on the legal front, it appears the new awareness is more than a passing fad among responsible restaurateurs.

``It's very hard to tell a customer you've been serving for 10 years: `Don't,' '' Sage says. But ``we want the public to know we're protecting them.''

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