Nearly four decades after a drunken-driving death led Massachusetts to outlaw happy hour specials, the state is reconsidering the ban.
The death of 20-year-old Kathleen Barry in Braintree, Mass., in September 1983 pushed future Democratic Party presidential candidate and then-Gov. Michael Dukakis to enact a bill banning the sale of free or discounted alcoholic drinks in his state in the following year, amid a broader national push to reduce drunken-driving fatalities.
But now, broad public support in a recent poll has injected fresh momentum into a draft bill proposed by state Rep. Mike Connolly, a Democrat, who wants to revisit the ban in an effort to offer relief to struggling restaurants and bars in the Bay State. A separate petition to have the ban voted on by citizens next year has been filed to the state’s attorney general.
Advocates of the ban’s repeal assert that ride-hailing apps have now made it less tempting for intoxicated people to drive. They also point to a nationwide drop in deaths related to drunken driving: In 1985, about 18,000 people died in alcohol-impaired crashes, according to federal data. In 2019, that number was about 10,000.
Besides, they argue, other states have adopted and then eased or repealed similar rules. Illinois eased restrictions in 2015, Kansas in 2012. Fatalities resulting from alcohol-involved car crashes haven’t changed significantly in those two states since their bans were rescinded, according to federal tallies.
Illinois recorded 998 deaths linked to driving under the influence in 2015. In 2019, the most recent year for which relevant data is available, it recorded 1,009 deaths, with a similar population size (about 12.7 million). Kansas recorded 405 drunken-driving deaths in 2012. In 2019, that number was 411, also with a similar population (about 2.9 million).
The same year, Massachusetts, with 6.9 million people, recorded 334 drunken-driving deaths.
Amid a rise in coronavirus cases, and associated social distancing measures, Joshua Lewin, co-owner of Juliet + Company, which operates a restaurant in Somerville and Boston, told NBC that happy hour specials would be helpful for restaurants that depend on alcohol sales. “Having customers spread out throughout the day into the margins when they normally wouldn’t be excited to come in would be incredibly beneficial,” he told NBC.
Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, has expressed doubts about repealing Massachusetts’s ban against happy hour.
“There were some awful, horrible, terrible experiences on a very regular basis that came with happy hours back in the day,” he told reporters last month. “That law did not come about by accident. … I’d be hard-pressed to support changing it.”
His office didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment. State lawmakers have previously debated easing or removing the law, including in 2011, and individual citizens have also filed separate petitions.
An executive at Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a national lobby group that strongly backed the strengthening of laws against drunken driving in the 1980s, including the 1984 Massachusetts bill, said his group wasn’t necessarily against happy hours, according to a statement in the Boston Globe. “It’s simply, if you drink, don’t drive,” the group said in the statement.