Door County Cab assists bar patrons in the voucher program in the county. / Tina M. Gohr/Door County Advocate
The Wisconsin Legislature is currently considering several laws to tighten drunken driving laws.
The Brown Jug Bill, modeled after a law in Alaska, would allow tavern keepers and other retailers who sell alcohol to take underage drinkers using a false ID to civil court. If found guilty, the underage drinker would have to pay the business a $1,000 fine. If the person is under 18, the minor’s parents would be liable for the fine.
The bill, introduced in spring as AB61, passed the Assembly and is supported by the Tavern League of Wisconsin. The Door County Tavern League also supports the measure, saying it would help deter underage drinking. The illegal behavior is to be reported to law enforcement and does not prevent police from continuing to perform underage drinking stings.
The measure, now in the Senate as SB46, had a mixed public hearing Sept. 12 and is being reviewed by the Agriculture, Small Business and Tourism Committee.
Other drunken driving bills being considered include: requiring first-time OWI offenders to appear in court, making a first offense a misdemeanor if the blood alcohol level is almost twice the legal limit, making all second offenses misdemeanors, treating all fourth offenses as felonies regardless of the time between offenses, seizing a drunk driver’s vehicle after a third OWI, requiring an ignition interlock device installed within three days of an operating restriction, and a mandatory three-year minimum prison term for seventh, eighth and ninth repeat offenders.
Jim Hoffman assists a passenger into his Door County Cab vehicle. The taxi company assists bar patrons in Door County Tavern League's SafeRide voucher program. / Tina M. Gohr/Door County Advocate
Door County Safe Ride Coordinator Sue Ebel, left, and husband, Greg, who own the Greystone Castle in Sturgeon Bay, brainstorm with Mike and Barb Lautenbach, Mike's Port Pub, Jacksonport, about how to get more Door County taverns to use the Safe Ride program for their patrons. / Ramelle Bintz/Door County Advocate
Fifteen people have been killed and 248 injured in alcohol-related crashes over the past nine years in Door County. In many cases they might have been spared by an under-utilized free-ride-home program offered by the Door County Tavern League.
Through SafeRide, 57 bars in the county are eligible to offer a ride to patrons who have had too much to drink. The problem, according to Tavern League leaders, is not enough bar owners or their customers are taking advantage of it or even know the SafeRide vouchers exist. Not all businesses serving alcohol in Door County belong to the tavern league, but more than half are members.
“We have very little participation,” said Greg Ebel, who together with his wife, Sue, run the Greystone Castle, 8 N. Madison Ave., Sturgeon Bay. Greg is also vice president of the Door County Tavern League, and Sue is the county coordinator for the SafeRide program available to all League members.
“We have maybe 10 taverns monthly who turn in vouchers,” Sue said. “That’s a very small percentage of our members.”
SafeRide started in Wisconsin in 1985 and is now in 60 of 72 counties. The program and helped reduce alcohol-related crashes and fatalities, she said.
But it isn’t used nearly as often as it could. Sturgeon Bay bar owners use it the most, Sue Ebel said.
The bartender gives a voucher to the patron, who hands it to the cab driver when they are picked up from the bar. Usually it is the bartender who arranges the ride. The voucher is then turned in to the local tavern league coordinator, who pays the cab company for the lift.
A similar program called the Good Samaritan ride also works with a voucher in rural areas where it may be more practical for a sober designated driver or bar owner to give a patron a ride. Sue said she believes many bar owners are doing this already, but not turning in the voucher to be reimbursed for their time and gas.
The free rides are funded in part with money from court surcharges that are levied when people are convicted for operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated.
Door County Tavern League President Mike Lautenbach and his wife, Barb, who run Mike’s Port Pub in Jacksonport, said they understand why many bars in northern Door County shy away from using cabs due to the time and distance, but free rides can also be offered with Good Samaritan drivers reimbursed.
“In Jacksonport, it’s usually Mike or I who take them home,” Barb said.
They said they have few occasions to use the vouchers at their bar, as their emphasis is on food and they close earlier in the evening. But Mike said there have been times when a visitor arrives after a long drive from Illinois, has a couple drinks and feels too tired and affected by alcohol to drive home safely. Those are perfect situations to utilize the SafeRide or Good Samaritan vouchers, he said.
Ideally, the Lautenbachs would like to find volunteer drivers who could be on call as Good Samaritans for bar owners when they need a pickup for more remote northern customers, although Door County Cab does pick up anywhere in Door County. Due to the distance to Jacksonport, Mike said he knows that would be an automatic $20 charge for a cab ride.
Both the Lautenbachs and Ebels are encouraging more Tavern League members to come to the monthly meetings and pick up vouchers so they have them on hand when they are needed before the holidays. But few bar owners attend the meetings, and bartenders and servers may not know they offer can free rides to their customers.
Another hurdle is customers are hesitant to leave their car behind because they need it to get to work in the morning, Sue said. Ideally two drivers can help convince a person who has had too much to drink to give up their keys: one to give a ride home and the other to drive the vehicle home, then ride back with the other driver.
“That’s the best scenario, but that doesn’t happen often,” she said.
“It makes me real happy after we have a band or a big party and I come in find the parking lot half full,” she said. “It means they got home safely.”
More groups are going out drinking with designated drivers these days, she said. But it is still sometimes difficult to convince someone to accept a free ride home.
“A lot of them are thankful as can be,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be able to offer. But it’s an all-out effort to let more people know it’s there and to use it. All they have to do is ask their server.”
The SafeRide program can be used by anyone and any time and any place where someone drives and drinks too much —a golf course, marina, wedding venue, concert or parade.
“It’s used for special events like a birthday party where people go out and just have too much to drink,” said Jim Hoffman, who owns Door County Cab. Door County Cab serves all of Door County every day and hour of the week. “Bartenders will call us and let us know to do the pickup. All the bars know we take the vouchers.’
Sturgeon Bay and Brussels establishments use it the most, Hoffman said. But they’ve also given rides to Forestville and Maplewood and made runs to Fish Creek in the summer. Tourists sometimes use it if they have a car at the bar, but it is mostly used by people who live in the area. One thing it can’t be used for is bar hopping — it can only be used by those who have driven a vehicle to the location and are getting a ride directly home.
“It’s pretty good to keep the drunken drivers off the road,” he said. “There are less accidents, plus our drivers make sure they get them into the house before we leave, because some have had so much to drink they could pass out. They really appreciate it.”
The next Door County Tavern League meeting is at 3 p.m. Monday at the Edge of Town, 1577 County C, Brussels.
Contact Ramelle Bintz at email@example.com.