For almost 30 years, happy hours have been banned in Massachusetts, but the casino bill may signal their return. The Senate recently passed an amendment, called the “Restaurant Equality Amendment,” that would even the playing field between Massachusetts bars and restaurants and casinos that come to Massachusetts. The casino measures would allow casinos to serve free drinks, raising concerns among some legislators that smaller businesses would suffer. This has sparked a debate centering on the potential drunk-driving implications, particularly because the purpose of the 1984 ban on drink specials was to reduce drinking and driving.
Senator Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, has said that the amendment would simply allow restaurants and bars to compete with the casinos, according to CBS Boston. Senator Susan Fargo, a Lincoln Democrat who opposes the amendment, thinks that there would be a sharp increase in drunk-driving injuries and fatalities if the existing happy hour restrictions are lifted, according to that source. Massachusetts Mothers Against Drunk Driving spokesman David P. DeIuliis told the Worcester Telegram and Gazette that MADD has not yet taken a formal position but that the organization is continuing to monitor the casino legislation.
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published a research report analyzing happy hour/drink special laws. According to that report, research has indicated that drunk- driving rates are sensitive to drink prices, particularly among underage people. However, from that research it would seem that if the problem group is underage drinkers, then the problem could possibly be attributed to lack of enforcement of laws limiting underage access to alcohol. The report also addresses enforcement of “sales to intoxicated” and “happy hour” statutes, referencing the strategy used in Massachusetts involving identification of the place of last drink in OUI cases.
Regardless of the conflicting positions in this happy hour debate, it draws renewed attention to drinking and driving in Massachusetts, which may prompt more zealous enforcement of OUI laws. Certain police departments have already voiced their opposition to lifting the ban. For example, a representative of the Lowell Police Department told the Lowell Sun, “We’re trying to control increases in alcohol consumption, not promote the consumption of alcohol…That’s exactly what these happy hours do.” While that police officer’s concern was with consumption of alcohol, as opposed to driving under the influence of alcohol, MADD has distinguished those two behaviors. “We’re concerned, but we’re not an anti-alcohol organization,” a MADD spokesman told the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.
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