As college students from across the nation head to Texas beaches for spring break, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission is already making plans to have new tools at its disposal for next year's partiers — mobile phone apps that it hopes will curb excessive and underage drinking.
One app will allow users to gauge their motor skills through a series of increasingly difficult tests, and the other would let anyone file a complaint against an establishment if it is suspected of serving alcohol to a minor or of breaking rules against serving too much alcohol to customers.
Although both apps are still in development, the former is designed to make people more aware of how much alcohol can affect them. Even basic tasks become difficult to perform as a person’s blood alcohol content rises.
The motor skills tests will be an educational component of a website, which will also have videos that discuss the dangers if individuals are unaware of their blood alcohol content.
The other app will enable anyone to file a complaint with the TABC to report suspected sales of alcohol to minors or overserving. Although those complaints can already be filed online, the TABC hopes that the app’s short-term costs will help to bring more minors — and the retailers who sell to them — into compliance.
“Our focus is on risk-based enforcement,” said Carolyn Beck, a TABC spokeswoman. “We’re looking for the sources, not just combing the beach for random people drinking.”
That means an angry customer filling out a vague complaint won’t immediately cause a bar to be shut down. Variables such as past violations, calls to 911 attributed to the location and public safety violations go into an overall risk assessment of any licensed premise.
Often though, the TABC says, a complaint will result in a visit from an agent to check the premises, leaving some businesses concerned.
“If someone is not pleased with their meal, their response is immediate and essentially glaring at any fault,” said Mark Haggenmiller, president and brewer of the Padre Island Brewing Company. “I see this as the same thing.”
Others are cautious but ultimately appreciative of the TABC's more risk-based enforcement.
“[The TABC] used to be a lot more Gestapo-like,” said Dan Stanton, director of operations at Louie’s Backyard on South Padre Island. “Now they listen to the students more and interact more. Before they make an arrest they make sure they're not making a mistake.”
The TABC reports that a quarter of complaints that it gets prove to be justified. About a third of the complaints are unfounded, but can lead to the TABC discovering other infractions.
Funds for the apps are coming from the largest spring break-related grant that the TABC has received through the governor’s office’s criminal justice division.
Before, single-year grants ranged from about $180,000 to $190,000, but this project was the focus of a two-year grant totaling $430,000. As of Jan. 31, the agency had spent $155,800 on development and for distributing educational materials and funding enforcement efforts.
TABC is working on the initiative as it and other state agencies are dealing with budget cuts. TABC has reduced the number of officers on duty during spring break and the hours spent working alongside the Department of Public Safety and local law enforcement. Despite those cuts, the agency has seen an increase over the last two years in the number of misdemeanor citations issued to retailers.
TABC attributes the increase to the risk-based enforcement they adopted at the end of 2005.
“We’re always trying to balance public safety and public service,” Beck said. “You can apply it specifically to spring break because the local economy depends upon that influx of consumers, and to keep that influx you have to keep it safe and fun.”