It is against the law for a San Diego bar or a California restaurant to serve alcohol to someone who is obviously intoxicated, DUI attorneys remind. Some say this California law gets about as much respect as a stop sign in the desert: No one stops because no one’s paying attention to it.
In San Diego County, according to San Diego counseling programs surveyed over the past four years, it is estimated 41% of drunk drivers reportedly have their last drink at a bar or restaurant, San Diego DUI lawyers are told.
10,000 folks are prosecuted for DUI in San Diego County every year. So about 4,000 of those people were likely to have come from a San Diego bar or California restaurant, San Diego DUI attorneys are told.
The 10,000 are the ones who were busted for drunk driving.
First-time DUI offenders typically drive at least 80 times before being arrested, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. So potentially thousands more are being served past the point of intoxication but are not arrested.
Under our current system, many bars and restaurants are serving more alcohol than they should — and certainly more than is allowed by state law.
We must improve
For years, communities across San Diego County have been asking retailers to do better. To date, nine of the county’s 18 cities have embraced a promising strategy to prevent DUIs and other alcohol related crimes.
It’s called Responsible Beverage Sales and Service training (or RBSS), a mandatory measure intended to improve retail standards to head off problems before they occur. Health experts consider it a best practice to prevent sales to minors and intoxicated patrons, which in turn can reduce a host of alcohol-related problems.
Local workers and managers who have received RBSS training in the county say it’s very useful, and nearly 90 percent say the training was “likely” or “very likely” to change the way they do their jobs. This includes checking IDs more carefully, slowing down service, educating staff, establishing new policies and — perhaps most importantly — cutting off intoxicated patrons.
Ninety-nine percent of participants recommend the training to others.
A good start
On the surface, the response from our hospitality industry has been relatively positive.
In 2011, San Diego County hosted 51 percent more ABC-certified trainings than any other county in California, according to the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and the Responsible Hospitality Coalition, a local nonprofit group that helps facilitate the trainings.
Between 2010 and 2014, there were 145 trainings in San Diego County, involving more than 8,300 workers.
Many businesses are voluntarily sending their workers to RBSS training. Most of the bars in Pacific Beach have done so, for example, even though the city of San Diego has no mandatory requirement.
Still, Pacific Beach far outpaces the rest of the city in terms of drunk-driving incidents and alcohol-related crimes. So the question is: If servers say the training is valuable, why are Pacific Beach and other areas experiencing such a high rate of alcohol-related problems?
The answer is simple: RBSS training is a great first step — but it’s far from sufficient on its own, according to some of the most prominent researchers in the country.
One of these researchers is Jim Fell, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, who has spent more than 40 years studying highway safety. He conducted a review of research studies on RBSS trainings to identify what makes them effective and presented his findings to law enforcement in San Diego earlier this month.
Fell’s conclusion: Follow-up enforcement is a key element for any successful training program. Without it, the trainings are far less effective.
When backed by enforcement and compliance checks, RBSS programs are able to increase the number of employee interventions — such as cutting off service — and consequently reduce the amount of patron intoxication, according to two decades worth of research examined by Fell.
One study in Minnesota found that sales to patrons perceived to be intoxicated dropped 46 percent in participating bars, compared to bars that had no training or enforcement efforts.
A soon-to-be published National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study in Ohio and New York found:
– In Ohio, the rate at which servers cut off service jumped from 3.6 percent to a range of 21 to 27 percent at bars participating in the study.
– In New York, researchers found a significant reduction in DUI arrests among 21- to 34-year-olds, compared to a similar community without an intervention program.
Without compliance and accountability, these programs would not have seen such positive results, Fell said.
“If communities really want to get ahead of this issue, they’ll need to see quarterly or bi-annual inspections and undercover operations with timely feedback given to business owners,” Fell said. “That’s the primary way to get compliance and prevent over-service.”
This is lesson we need to learn in San Diego County.
Our training programs will have limited success until we find a way to fund consistent, sustained compliance operations.
Until we do, we will continue to see more than 40 percent of our DUIs coming from our bars and restaurants — and that’s a number too large to tolerate.
Stacie Perez is director of housing and clinical services for Episcopal Community Services and is responsible for ECS’ ACCORD DUI Program, one of four state-licensed DUI schools in the region, with referrals coming from San Diego County courts, the probation department and Department of Motor Vehicles. She also serves on the Alcohol Policy Panel of San Diego County.