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Unger sponsors alcohol awareness education measure

February 07, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Berkeley County holds a dubious record that many sober-driving motorists would consider scary.

At a single DUI checkpoint staged by police last year, authorities arrested 22 motorists for driving under the influence of alcohol, according to West Virginia State Police records.

That total topped tallies from checkpoints set up in every other jurisdiction in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and in the nation's capital, State Police Lt. C.N. Zerkle Jr. confirmed Tuesday.

"It's kind of nice you got that many drunk drivers off (the) road," Zerkle said.

On the other hand, the director of the State Police Traffic Records division suspected many people would be disturbed by the number, which he suggested possibly could be a national record, too.

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Berkeley County Commissioner Ronald K. Collins attributes at least part of the county's apparent DUI problem to West Virginia's closing time for alcohol-serving establishments. Last call in West Virginia is 3 a.m., expect on Sunday morning, when it is 2:30 a.m. Neighboring Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia close earlier.

"We get all the drunks after two o'clock on the north and south ends of the county," Collins said. "They come down here drunk already."

Collins backs legislative efforts to change state law to address the situation, which he believes causes undue hardship on law enforcement officers who are forced to devote precious resources to DUI-related incidents.

State Sen. John Unger and Dels. John Doyle and Craig Blair separately indicated they previously backed unsuccessful legislation to allow counties to close establishments at an earlier hour. This year, Unger is the lone sponsor of legislation (Senate Bill 344) that would require employees of licensed private clubs and retail outlets to complete an alcohol awareness education course and learn how to "cut (the drinking public) off" when necessary.

Considering the dangers of alcohol, Unger believes the proposed requirement is justified and comparable to existing rules that mandate restaurant staff obtain a food-handling permit.

"They ought to have the same type of thing," said Unger, who also is backing legislation to prohibit open containers of alcohol in motor vehicles on public roads.

Dallas Staples, commissioner of the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration, acknowledged Tuesday that his agency would take steps to discourage alcohol-serving establishments from "overserving" people, if that was identified as a problem.

But Staples questioned whether it would be fair to close businesses earlier, especially those locations not close to county border areas and not experiencing the out-of-state traffic.

"I think that could have a negative impact" on the businesses, Staples said.

Though a proponent of closing alcohol-serving establishments earlier, Doyle said he has introduced legislation to allow the same businesses to offer more product, specifically beers with a higher alcohol content than 4 percent.

"I jokingly refer to it as 'yuppie' beer," Doyle said of his tourism-minded bill (House Bill 2536). "People come to our restaurants in the Eastern Panhandle who are accustomed to drinking these beers. They can't get them here and they don't understand why."

"All the (ABCA) rules are in the form of how we control (alcohol), not how we promote it," Doyle said.

Staples on Tuesday confirmed that he agreed to visit the Eastern Panhandle to talk with local leaders about their concerns, which he acknowledged likely were specialized.

"There are issues that border counties experience that others don't," Staples said.

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