In the October issue of the Belly Up Tavern’s monthly newsletter, owner Dave Hodges uses his column not to plug upcoming concerts at the Solana Beach nightclub, but to promote sober driving.
“No longer can people who go out for an evening of fun, music and drink take the drunk-driving laws lightly,’ Hodges writes. ‘It is time for everyone who goes out . . . and consumes alcohol to do so in a responsible manner.”
Easier said than done? Not at the Belly Up. A few years ago, the popular North County nightclub launched a designated driver program. Groups of two or more are asked to select one member who promises to refrain from drinking alcohol in a written pledge. In return, this “designated driver” receives free non-alcoholic beverages--coffee, soda, ice tea--all night long.
Now, Hodges writes in his column, “we are adding further incentives to make this program more appealing.” Starting this month, designated drivers also receive free admission to the Belly Up on regular nights, when local bands are playing, and half-price admission on concert nights, when national acts are featured. For designated drivers in groups of four or more, concert admission is free as well.
“Since we began this program, we’ve been averaging maybe 20 or 30 designated drivers a week,” Belly Up manager Mike Mihalkanin said. “And with these new
incentives, that average is certain to go up.
“We’re trying to be a club that promotes entertainment more than a club that promotes drinking. We want people to go out and have a good time and use their heads about consuming alcohol and driving, because it’s nothing to play around with anymore.”
Bill Robinson, spokesman for the San Diego Police Department, couldn’t agree more, pointing out that more than 50% of all traffic deaths in San Diego include alcohol as a factor.
That’s why Robinson applauds the Belly Up’s designated driver program.
“Anything that rewards sobriety,” he said, “certainly has our approval.”
The Belly Up’s fight against drinking and driving might be particularly tenacious, but it is by no means a solitary one.
Most of San Diego County’s larger nightclubs have, in recent years, instituted their own programs to promote sober driving. Many are similar, though not as far-reaching (or as well-publicized), as the Belly Up’s.
“Ever since our dance club opened five years ago, we’ve been offering free non-alcoholic beverages to designated drivers in groups of two or more people,” said Richard Riedel, manager of Club Diego’s discotheque in Pacific Beach. “We don’t make a big deal about it, but it’s available to anyone who asks.”
Jeff Gaulton--co-owner of the Bacchanal in Kearny Mesa, a leading concert showcase club--said, “Whenever we see a table of four or more people, we ask whether they have a designated driver, and if they do, we treat that driver to non-alcoholic beverages, all night long, on the house.
“We don’t publicize this program because there’s really no need to; once people sit down, they’ll find out soon enough from their waitresses.
“Generally, the reaction to this policy is more than favorable. People genuinely like the idea that we are concerned about their safety. And the people who don’t take it aren’t offended. Sometimes, they just live around the corner or are only having one to two cocktails, anyway.
“They feel it is not an intrusion of privacy if we have nothing but their best interest in mind.”
The Bacchanal also closes its doors, on weeknights, as soon as the concerts are over--generally around midnight, Gaulton said.
“This way, people can see the show and then go home and get a good night’s sleep, instead of hanging around at the bar until 2 a.m. with nothing to do but drink.
“And if we do find someone who’s obviously intoxicated, we provide any kind of transportation necessary to prevent that person from driving. Usually, we call a cab, but at times, I’ve even taken people home myself.”
Beverly Beck Ellman, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), welcomes the steps nightclubs like the Belly Up, Club Diego’s, and the Bacchanal have already taken to promote sober driving, particularly each club’s policy of providing free non-alcoholic beverages to designated drivers.
But she won’t be satisfied until every nightclub, bar, restaurant, and hotel lounge in the county follows suit. And hopefully, Ellman said, most of them will--as soon as MADD announces its plans for a countywide designated driver program at a Dec. 12 press conference at the Hotel del Coronado.
“We’re going to ask every establishment where alcohol is served to participate,” Ellman said. “The ones that do will be given ‘designated driver’ stickers for the customers, and buttons for the service.
“Having a designated driver program is one thing, but really using it is another. A lot of places say they already have programs of their own, but when people walk in and ask the servers, they don’t know anything about it.
“We’re going to try to change that. Our goal is not just to get the entire industry to participate, but to make people aware that this program exists.”
In 1987, Ellman said, more than 5,000 people were killed or injured in alcohol- or drug-related traffic accidents in San Diego County.
“So what we’re trying to say is that a vehicle becomes a lethal weapon in the hands of a drunk driver,” she said, “and that the people responsible for these tragedies may well have been patrons of bars and restaurants.
“They used poor judgment and had too many drinks, and they subsequently destroyed their lives and the lives of many innocent people.”