Two years ago, Sleeping Dog Tavern in Santa Fe, New Mexico reached its limit. The no-smoking and tougher responsible service laws made business challenging, but the state’s legislation that mandated ignition interlock technology on the cars of first-time drunk driving offenders forced a new business model.
“We knew we had to get away from being a ‘beer-and-a-shot’ bar with younger clientele if we were going to stay in the business,” says Dave Readyhough, general manager. While one area bar after another closed, Sleeping Dog wisely chose to reinvent itself as a gastropub, a move that helped keep the business going.
The Sleeping Dog’s “wake up or die” response to interlock legislation is one that an increasing number of restaurants and bars may have to consider as such legislation sweeps the country. In 2008, 70 interlock bills were introduced in 27 states, more than double the amount introduced in 2007. Currently 47 states have interlock laws of some kind, eight with first-offense interlock laws such as those in New Mexico. Six have high blood alcohol concentration (BAC) laws that penalize people who are arrested with excessively high concentrations.
Ignition interlock is an automobile technology, currently a breathalyzer, that prevents a vehicle’s use if the driver’s BAC is beyond a certain level. Levels are determined on a state by state basis. To ensure that those convicted of drunk driving do not drive under the influence of any alcohol, many states set interlock to kick in at .025 BAC or below.
Hinting at a day when every driver might have to check his or her BAC before starting a car, the Washington D.C.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers asked Congress in May for $30 million annually to develop new ignition interlock technology that could come standard on all new cars. The alliance, made up of 11 car companies, has partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency, to develop the technology.
While few argue against reducing drunk driving fatalities, some in restaurant, beverage and civil liberty circles question the cost, effectiveness and implementation of ignition interlock. Do interlocks actually reduce drunk driving and drunk driving accidents? New Mexico stats say they do, showing alcohol-involved driving accidents down 31 percent and alcohol-involved fatalities down 35 percent since interlock legislation came into effect. But are interlock laws that penalize first time offenders too draconian? Is interlock—which cost $75 to $100 to install and nearly as much to monitor monthly—too expensive? Do interlock laws sweep people into the criminal court system who shouldn’t be there?
Punitive or Preventative
Perhaps the largest question among restaurants and bars has nothing to do with over-consumption: Do interlock laws deter socially responsible drinking in their zeal to penalize and prevent over-indulgence?
“Yes,” says Steve Chucri, president of the Phoenix-based Arizona Restaurant Association. “We saw alcohol sales decrease 17 to 25 percent in much of the fine and casual dining segment in our state right after the interlock law went into affect here in September, 2007,” says Chucri, who monitored the sales impact through September, 2008. While those numbers have since been compounded by problems with the economy, he believes the interlock law has instilled fear among diners that prevents some from having even one drink.
“At least give the judge the discretion to decide if an offender should get the interlock on a case by case basis,” says Chucri. “To have the interlock requirement triggered by any and all first time DUI offenses is a bit harsh.”
Currently there are a few bills being introduced in Arizona to try to soften the language of the laws, but Chucri is not optimistic. “We don’t see those bills having much impact—or see the law being repealed,” he says.
For their part, restaurateurs in New Mexico, a state with some of the best-documented and longest-standing interlock legislation, “are resigned to interlock legislation and are no longer fighting it,” says Carol Wight, president of the New Mexico Restaurant Association. Wight says there is less incidence of drunk driving in the state, which is a good thing. But, “I think there are probably better ways to accomplish what we’ve accomplished than through an interlock device.”
On a national level, at least, industry groups still are fighting.
“The big part of our opposition is to first-offender laws, because they are the first step toward normalizing, in the public eye, the use of interlock. If interlock no longer is viewed as punitive, but as preventative, that makes the idea of making them standard equipment in all cars seem fine,” says Sarah Longwell, managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage Institute. “The only reason this will not happen is if the public says, ‘I hate this. This is Big Brother in my car.’”
Advocates of using ignition interlock with first-time offenders say it is important because that group represents from 50 to 65 percent of all convicted offenders annually. “The foodservice industry wants the firewall to be between first offenders and multiple offenders,” says Paul Marques, senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Calverton, Md. “But if interlock is going to make roads safer, we cannot ignore first-time offenders—particularly as there are between 600 to 1,000 episodes of impaired driving for each first-time arrest.”
While many restaurants and bars do not want to go on the record with opinions about interlock laws since it is easy to mischaracterize ignition interlock opposition as over-consumption advocacy, those who do weigh in have balanced views.
“I don’t think interlock laws are a silver bullet that will fix drunk driving, but I do think they help people take responsibility for their actions,” says John Gozigian, vice president of operations for Santa Fe Dining, Inc., which owns Sleeping Dog and six other New Mexico venues.
Rohit Sahajpal, manager at Tommy Nevin’s Pub in the Northwestern University college town of Evanston, Ill., agrees. “In a way, these laws protect bar owners because they help the individuals we have to worry about the most act more responsibly. In my mind, the responsibility for what one drinks should lie more with the patron, less with the purveyor.”
Stan Novack, who has long studied the issue and is president of Novack Consulting, Ltd. and former vice president of concept development for multi-concept operator HMSHost, takes a moderate but cautionary stance. “This is not going away,” he says, noting that former MADD head Chuck Hurley recently was nominated to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which would be involved with any federal interlock mandate. “I’m sure the government will be putting more weight behind mandatory interlock in all cars within 10 to 15 years.”
His advice: “I think the industry needs to rally together to promote a better alternative; don’t require interlock for first-time offenders or for all cars, but rather use them to prevent high-BAC repeat offenders from driving.”The debate continues as ignition interlock legislation builds.