Naperville police arrest more drunk drivers than their counterparts in nearly every other Illinois city, but some local officials would like to see them cut those numbers.
In the aftermath of the July 19 accident blamed on alcohol-impaired driving that killed two young local men, discussions have been robust about approaches that might help reduce the likelihood of drivers stumbling out of downtown bars and climbing behind the wheel. The possibilities range from regulating serving sizes to cutting off drinkers earlier to allowing more time to nurse the evening’s final nightcap.
According to Paul Darrah, spokesman for DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin, 21-year-old Michael Szot of Geneva was at the downtown Naperville bar Features with Sajaad Syed and Mihirtej Boddupalli just before he allegedly drove drunk into the water-filled quarry near the Millennium Carillon, drowning both of his companions, who also were age 21.
“There’s been lots of discussion of this the last few days, and my thoughts are clarifying on it,” said Councilman Joe McElroy, who has argued in the past for tighter regulation of late-night imbibing. “What I think makes most sense would be something along the lines of closing an hour earlier on weekends … and also not allowing shots after midnight.”
He said he was struck by stories written by one of his sons, then a reporter for the campus newspaper at Indiana University, about the large number of student hospitalizations for alcohol poisoning at the start of the school year.
“The way you get that drunk is by doing a lot of shots,” said McElroy, who heard the shots last call suggestion from members of the business community.
It has not been established whether consumption of shots was part of the evening for Szot, Syed and Boddupalli before the tragedy occurred.
An earlier closing time, McElroy asserts, also could help discourage some of those who come to the city later at night with the primary goal of getting drunk.
“Young people tend to go out pretty late, and so if you chop and hour or so off the closing time, I think some of the people coming from out of town won’t bother to come,” he said.
McElroy and others said the operators of establishments where drunken incidents are less common — Hugo’s Frog Bar, Sullivan’s Steakhouse, Meson Sabika and other upscale eateries — shouldn’t have to see their business harmed by what goes on at some of the places that commonly attract patrons inclined to pick fights once they’ve tucked a couple of drinks under their belts.
“What you want to do is come up with regulations that will inhibit, to the extent possible, binge drinking without harming our vibrant restaurant scene,” said McElroy, who added that other suggested changes include regulating drink specials and oversized cocktails, and encouraging more live entertainment to take some of the emphasis away from drinking.
According to council member Bob Fieseler, making policy changes that address bars’ operating hours will involve collaborative work.
“There’s got to be a process before we’re going to be asked to take a vote,” he said Wednesday.
Among the entities that would have roles to play in adjusting the rules, Fieseler said, are the Liquor Commission, Police Department, Fire Department, restaurant owners and other downtown business people.
“My current inclination … is to use a combination of earlier closing time and kind of moderately earlier last call, so that we don’t over penalize the establishments like Hugo’s and Sullivan’s – they’re not part of the concentration of large numbers of young drunk people,” he said. “I’m thinking a half hour — now, where that lines up with Liquor Commission, police, fire, remains to be seen.”
The commission takes steps already to minimize trouble from alcoholic excess. Naperville Police Department Detective Mark English, who oversees the city’s Beverage Alcohol Sellers and Servers Education and Training program, said attention is given in each session to assessing customers’ sobriety before they’re ever served a drop.
“What we stress is to look for signs of overserving. The trend right now is for people to pre-party before they come out,” said English, noting that trainees are cautioned against admitting anyone who has clearly had a few before arriving at the bar. “We teach them in BASSET that it’s easier to not let them in than to deal with them after they come in.”
The timing of service to those who do come in the door could be a delicate matter. Fieseler said a comment he made several years ago, noting that good things tend not to happen after midnight, has been oft-repeated — but he cautioned against taking the adage too literally.
“We need not go overboard in making a change to (serving times), but I do think having last drinks served earlier would be better,” he said. “When last call comes at 12:30 as it does now, people can order two more and drink till 1 a.m.”
Instead, he thinks serving the evening’s final drink at 11:45 p.m. on weeknights, and 12:45 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, with closing time 45 minutes later, makes more sense.
“That gives people plenty of time to luxuriate over their last drink at places like Sullivan’s, Catch 35, Ted’s Montana Grill, and yet gives plenty of time for the calming of these other establishments that seem to be more active in the destruction arena,” he said.
Much discussion lies ahead, and the council is not scheduled to meet until Aug. 19, so the officials expect the possibilities to see considerable scrutiny in the coming weeks. Downtown bar owners will be part of that dialogue, and they aren’t expected to offer universal support for the earlier last call. Jim Bergeron, who owns the Wise Boxer Pour House, this week declined to weigh in on the earlier closing time just yet.
“Right now I’m just going to keep my thoughts to myself, meet with councilmen and maybe see where we go from there,” he said.