BY BETSY LABELLE
At a roundtable discussion Thursday, Dec. 21, officials from the Village of Wellington outlined plans to combat drunk driving and underage drinking in the community, particularly during the upcoming equestrian season.
The roundtable discussion at the Wellington Municipal Complex included local restaurant leaders, law enforcement officials, representatives from the Village of Wellington and members of the equestrian community. They discussed possible solutions in how to work together to curb drunk driving and shut down the problem with ever-present underage fake ID abuse.
Village officials said they are aware of the problem and shared strategies for coming together as a community and taking tough action on those who break the law.
Over the last five years, a number of deaths have occurred within the Village of Wellington linked to drunk driving.
The catalyst for the meeting was a Nov. 25 crash on South Shore Blvd. that claimed the lives of two equestrians, and seriously injured another.
The high-speed crash that killed 19-year-old Dana McWilliams and 21-year-old Christian Kennedy, and injured 24-year-old Elaine O’Halloran, put the entire community on high alert for this upcoming season.
The crash was not linked to alcohol on early Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office reports, however, other reports suggest that alcohol did play a factor.
The discussion centered around two problems: discussing ways to prevent those under the influence from getting into their cars at local bars and restaurants, and finding solutions for the use of false fake IDs to get past the entry staff, which then allows underage alcohol consumption.
More than a dozen restaurant owners and managers joined in the discussion and explained the problems they are dealing with on a regular basis, asserting they work hard to prevent the bad decisions of people who choose to drive after drinking.
Wellington officials said that they would work with the restaurant owners to help solve the issues.
“The problem of drinking while driving is not something we can all solve alone. It’s something we can try to solve together,” Village Manager Paul Schofield said.
Vice Mayor John McGovern agreed.
“We are about to enter the height of the winter season, the holiday vacations at schools, holiday-goers and New Year’s parties, and then we move into the height of the equestrian season. Now is the time to address the problem,” McGovern said.
He added that underage drunk driving is preventable if everyone works together.
“Everyone at this table has an interest in making sure that everyone in our community is safe. Every loss of life by an underage drinker is preventable,” he said. “If we are all working together, we are the first line of defense. This is not a unique problem to the equestrian community versus high school students or college students. This is a problem not only in our community, but everywhere.”
However, he was encouraged by the turnout for the meeting.
“We are the kind of community where on relatively short notice we can assemble this kind of group together around a table and talk about how we can keep this problem from happening again,” McGovern said.
Capt. Rolando Silva, commander of the PBSO’s District 8 substation in Wellington, said that the community must form a united front to combat the issue.
“It’s amazing that you all took the time from your busy schedules to be a part of the solution,” he said. “When we come together, we can prevent having any more tragedies. We want to do everything we can possibly do.”
He went on to explain the PBSO’s new Operation Wild Stallion.
“It’s an initiative for multiple strategies to curb underage drinking, and drinking and driving in general,” Silva said. “We have been doing this for two weeks, going into the establishments undercover to some capacity and witnessing things that are happening. We are doing this for intelligence and to gather information to find ways to deal with the problems.”
The issue with fake IDs has continued to come up, he said.
“One of the largest problems we are finding are the fake driver’s licenses and identification cards, a lot of them international,” Silva explained. “These kids don’t know that it’s a felony charge to be in possession of a fake ID. We are trying to get the word out to them. It’s all fun and games until they are caught.”
Getting arrested on a fake ID charge will have long-term consequences, he said.
“A felony will be with them for life. They will not be able to get into college, the military or get past the strike that is on their record forever,” Silva said. “We are meeting with those groups in the equestrian community to let them know these things, and to prevent them from making such a huge mistake. It really is rampant.”
Silva said that the PBSO will continue with this effort.
“We are stepping up our unmarked cars and cracking down on DUI enforcements,” he said. “Anyone out there at night drinking while driving will find the enforcement. Being a former DUI prosecutor at the state’s attorney’s office, I review the reports. FYI, we are heavy on the enforcement. We cannot afford people out there drinking and driving.”
During the roundtable part of the discussion, each community member pointed to a different problem and solution to share with the group.
The discussions led to a more united front between the restaurant owners, village officials and the PBSO. The largest problem pointed out was that the partying folks don’t know the consequences of their actions. Therefore, it requires more staff at the restaurants, more policing of the parking lots and more education for the equestrian community.
John Darrah, manager of the Players Club bar at Suri West Restaurant, brought along a scanner they have used for 12 years for U.S. driver’s licenses with a wide screen that immediately shows the age of the person to the entry staff. It also stores the person’s name, address and what time they arrived, which can be downloaded into a computer each night.
The scanner can read the bar codes or magnetic strips on any valid license in the United States. However, fake IDs cause problems. “These young people are going online, putting up their pictures and getting foreign fake IDs, where the scanners can’t really tell the difference in the bar codes. It’s a problem.”
Today’s underage population is the most technically savvy generation, Darrah noted.
“We have zero interest in serving alcohol to anyone under 21. We don’t even let people under 21 into the bar establishment,” he said. “If we suspect them, we will ask them for a second ID. Usually, that stops them, and they do not try to enter the establishment.”
The restaurants all shared their own false ID problem. On average, the bars and restaurants confiscate three to five fake ID cards a night, and they also discussed the international ID problem and what they do with an international ID guidebook.
The PBSO encouraged the bars and restaurants to call them and help to get these young people caught.
The attendees of the roundtable discussion agreed that by coming together as a community, more ways will be found to prevent further drunk driving and underage drinking problems in Wellington.