Free tows for drinkers during holiday season

PHOENIX -- Bar and restaurant owners who have fought tougher drunken driving laws because it's bad for business are now helping to fund a pilot program that might allow some of their patrons who drove there to buy more drinks.

The Beverage Alcohol Community Information Council announced Tuesday will fund free tows home for up to 800 customers of selected businesses in Tempe and Scottsdale during the Christmas season. Similar vouchers could be offered in the future elsewhere in Arizona.

Steve Chucri, executive director of the Arizona Restaurant Association, said the program is designed to "highlight alternative ways in which to get restaurant and bar patrons home safely while in the comfort of their own vehicle.'

But both Chucri's group and the Arizona Licensed Beverage Association, both members of the council, have repeatedly worked to kill legislation designed to crack down on drunken drivers.

Most recently that involved a 2007 measure to prohibit anyone convicted of drunk driving from operating a motor vehicle for the next year that does not have an ignition interlock. That device prevents the car or truck from starting unless the motorist blows a "clean' breath sample to prove he or she is not intoxicated.

Chucri testified at the time that the new requirement might result in patrons, fearing the new implications of a DUI conviction, actually drinking less. The measure was passed over his protests anyway.

And the objections remain: Bill Weigele, executive director of the beverage association, told Capitol Media Services on Tuesday his group still believes that first-time offenders should not be required to install the interlocks. He said the law has had an effect on business -- and, by extension, the state budget.

"You're talking about sales tax revenue,' he said, referring to the receipts business owners collect from patrons.

"Right now it's down 30 percent,' Weigele continued. He said it would be wrong to blame that solely on state's economy.

"A lot of it is the first-year DUI,' he said.

It isn't just interlocks that those who serve alcohol for a living have opposed: Industry lobbyists, including Weigele himself, fought the move more than a decade ago to set the legal blood alcohol content for operating a motor vehicle at 0.08. Weigele, seeking to keep the 0.10, said the change would affect "social drinkers.'

The new program to get rides for intoxicated patrons creates an alliance of sorts between the industry and the Governor's Office of Highway Safety which has consistently pushed for tougher drunk driving laws. In fact Alberto Gutier, its former and once again director, had lobbied in the interim on behalf of the manufacturers of interlock devices to mandate they be required of all those convicted of drunk driving. Prior to that, the interlocks were requires only fir those found guilty of extreme DUI, meaning a BAC of 0.15 or above.

Gutier told Capitol Media Services the position of industry officials against tighter drunk driving laws is not surprising.

"That's their job, more restaurant business, more bar business,' he said. But he said that doesn't preclude him from accepting their offer to provide funding for free rides home, even if the sponsors have a different goal than he does.

"Their business is down,' Gutier said.

"If they feel they can create a program as a pilot to actually maybe improve the bottom line, fine with me,' he continued, even if it means people may drink more. Gutier said as long as the customers get a ride home and don't drive drunk, the goals of his agency are met.

Gutier said he hopes the council expands the program beyond Tempe and Scottsdale.

"It may prevent one person from killing or injuring somebody,' he said. "To that effect, I'm happy.'

Other members of the council include the Wine Institute, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, various beer and liquor distributors and hotel and tourism groups.


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