Part of Crackdown on Drunk Driving : Measure Takes Sober Aim at 'Happy Hours'

Times Staff Writer

They call it "happy hour," a tradition of sorts for work-weary souls looking for a few half-priced drinks to forget the day's drudgery.

But two state lawmakers say the practice is contributing to highway carnage and on Wednesday proposed that California join a nationwide movement to ban happy hours and the array of other promotions used to lure patrons to half-filled taverns.

"We are not prohibitionists," Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim) told reporters at a Capitol news conference. "What we are after is to get that casual drinker and that sometimes heavy drinker away from the wheel of an automobile . . . and to consider the tragedy and trauma innocent families go through as a result of some drunken driver."

The legislation, co-authored by Seymour and Sen. Newton R. Russell (R-Glendale), was introduced as part of a wide-ranging package of bills designed to crack down on motorists who drink or use drugs. In addition to banning happy hour promotions, the bills would establish special jails for drunk drivers, close legal loopholes in the prosecution of cocaine users and establish a "very onerous" fine for those who injure or kill someone while driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The happy hour measure, patterned after one that took effect last December in Massachusetts, would prohibit discount prices, two-for-one promotions and any other special discount offered for alcohol during limited periods of the day. Violators would be subject to fines and license suspensions.

Both Russell and Seymour said they have nothing against drinkers and have even been known to have a few drinks themselves. But they were motivated to act, they said, in part by the kinds of promotions offered by some bars.

Among those, Russell said, was a "drink and drown" night staged by one tavern and another that advertised its happy hour with the slogan, "Come in a car, leave in a coma."

"People are attracted by this device," Russell said. "They come and drink more than they intend to drink, more than they should, and go home in an inebriated state and are on our streets and highways."

Limits in 14 States

At least 14 states have some kind of administrative regulations limiting happy hours and similar promotions. But the Massachusetts law was the nation's first to establish criminal penalties for cheap-drink inducements.

Its adoption and the California proposal are seen as part of a wider move toward stiffer penalties spurred in part by political pressure from activist groups like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.

Happy hours already have been banned in bars and clubs on Army bases. Ohio recently declared that no happy hour could extend beyond 9 p.m., and Delaware's Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control is enforcing a ban against offering patrons all they can drink for a fixed price.

Most bar owners contacted Wednesday seemed unconcerned about the proposed happy hour ban. A few even said they would favor such a measure.

"I don't believe in happy hours," said Cece Mills, manager of Casey's Bar & Grill in downtown Los Angeles. "They do not do any justice to the house. They bring in the wrong kind of clientele, and they don't make any money."

The manager of Confetti, a Sacramento chain of bars best known for such happy hour promotions as the "male fitness challenge" and the "sexiest pajama party," said government has no business "telling people to drink or not to drink." But Paul Fisher said he is convinced that a happy hour ban would not cut into attendance as long as all bars have to live by the same rules.

Similar Reaction

"People will still go out and drink," he added.

According to published reports, bar owners in Massachusetts have reacted similarly to that state's ban, which, while not winning praise from the beverage industry, also did not garner serious opposition from groups like the National Restaurant Assn.

Other bills introduced Wednesday as part of the 13-bill drunk-driver package would:

- Fine those convicted of drunk-driving offenses involving injury or death an additional fee equal to 10% of their income. The money would pay for alcohol education programs.

- Finance 75 additional enforcement officers in the Alcohol Beverage Control Department by adding a 15% surcharge to liquor licenses.

- Expand the legal definition of cocaine to include a synthetic form of the drug that is now commonly used. Because of its exclusion from existing law, many drug cases have been dismissed.

- Require convicted drunk drivers to serve at least 48 consecutive hours in jail and have their driver's licenses suspended within 45 days of conviction.

- Authorize $500,000 to finance local parent groups to combat drug and alcohol abuse.

Crackdown in California

In 1981, California led other states in adopting a series of laws to make prosecution of drunk drivers easier, plea bargaining more difficult and harsher punishment almost certain. Last year, the Legislature doubled the maximum fine for first-time convictions to $1,000.

Highway deaths attributable to alcohol abuse declined during the following two years but began edging up in 1984.

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