Bars, restaurants join with highway officials to encourage designated drivers

Citrus Heights police officer Jennifer Kell checks a drivers license during a DUI checkpoint in 2008.
Citrus Heights police officer Jennifer Kell checks a drivers license during a DUI checkpoint in 2008. Bee file

The so-called designated driver, a great idea in concept, is in truth a lonely job. It’s the friend at the party or stool mate at the bar who’s just plain having less fun.

California safety leaders want to help. In an effort to encourage more designated drivers during the holiday season, the state has joined with 250 bars, restaurants and nightclubs statewide this holiday season to make non-imbibers feel more like they’re part of the party.

The California Office of Traffic Safety unveiled a smartphone app Friday that allows partiers to find nearby establishments that are offering free “mocktails,” appetizers and other benefits for friends willing to be DD for the night. The DDVIP app includes a map of participating local bars, photos and descriptions of the bars and the list of available offerings for designated drivers. Recognizing that some will succumb to temptation, the app also allows people to electronically summon a taxi.

Thirty-three restaurants, bowling alleys, pubs and clubs in the Sacramento area are participating, and many of them say they’re concocting something special for abstainers.

Hock Farm, across the street from the state Capitol, was offering a seasonal drink Friday of pomegranate juice, mint, black pepper and soda water that looks like a regular alcoholic drink from the bar.

“We aren’t just handing them a Sprite,” said Callista Wengler, marketing director for Hock Farm and the Paragary Restaurant Group, a program participant. “We want them to feel like they are part of the group and enjoy something unique.”

LowBrau Bierhall co-owner Clay Nutting said his place at 20th and K streets has concocted a free “nojito” for designated drivers during the holidays. “I think it’s important for people who are taking care of their friends to be taken care of.”

Speaking at a news conference at LowBrau, traffic safety spokesman Chris Cochran said state officials believe, based on interviews with bar staff, that people in their 20s and 30s are more apt to consider being designated drivers, but it’s still hard to be the “odd man out” once you’re in the bar.

“We’re pleased to see that the younger generation understands the concept of the designated sober driver as being the hero of the evening,” he said, but “it’s still not happening across the board, nor are the DDs always totally abstaining for the evening. We have a long way to go.”

Other central Sacramento establishments participating in the CCVIP program include KBAR, District 30, Mother, Esquire Grill, Vanguard, Cafeteria 15L, The Rind, Faces and Monkey Bar. Several in Davis are participating, including Ketmoree Thai Restaurant and Bar and Sudwerk Restaurant and Brewery. Among others are Folsom Lake Bowl and Double Nickel Smokehouse and Pins N Strikes in Elk Grove.

Karly Contenti, 22, is a restaurant server in midtown who acted as designated driver to four friends for a night of drinking at Golden Bear in midtown Thursday night. She said the program sounds like an “awesome incentive” that could help avoid the awkward moment when other people try to buy her a drink.

“That happens all the time,” she said. “It’s peer pressure. They say, ‘Oh, you can have just one, you’ll be fine.’ So, it’s great to be able to have a (non-alcoholic) drink in your hands.”

A co-worker of hers, Danielle Bettencourt, 31, is a manager at Streets of London, one of the participating bars. “Making sure your friends are safe, that is the most satisfaction of it,” she said. And, there is one fun perk: “You are one who gets to remind your friends of the dumb drunk things they did the night before!”

Bettencourt said she and her friends are more apt to pay for a ride home from Lyft, Uber or a taxi. That allows everyone in the group to drink, still get home safe and avoid the high cost of a drunken driving arrest. A conviction of DUI in in California can cost a motorist up to $10,000 in fines, legal fees and increased insurance costs.

Joel York, general manager at Centro Cocina Mexicana in Sacramento, said he is seeing fewer designated drivers now that the app-based Lyft and Uber ride services have become popular. He estimated that 10 percent or more of drinking groups have a designated driver. Sometimes in a group of women it’s the woman who is pregnant. Sometimes among men, it’s the guy who’s had a beer or two, then switches to water.

“I think it (the designated driver push) can have success,” York said. “It needs to be marketed more.”

RADD, an entertainment industry group that is working with the state on road safety issues, has launched an awareness program at 32 colleges in California, including Sacramento State and UC Davis, that features a variety of ways to reduce alcohol-related crashes.

Speaking at the LowBrau event, RADD President Erin Meluso said it is important to have a plan in place before heading out.

“Plan ahead, before everyone shows up at the venue with their own car, use alternative transportation, get a designated driver, share a cab or just stay put, get a room or crash on someone’s couch,” Meluso said. “Your lifestyle is your business, but if you take it on the road, it becomes everyone’s business.”

The California Highway Patrol launched its annual drunken driving crackdown Friday, and will continue it through Jan. 1 with checkpoints and special patrols.

Seventy people were killed in drunken driving crashes during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday weekends alone, state officials said.

“This is a time which should be for families and celebrations, not for tragedies on our roadways,” state traffic safety office director Rhonda Craft said.

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.