MY VERO: Is letting bars serve until 2 a.m. such a good idea?

Some folks might consider this an overreaction to the tragedy that occurred in the wee hours of Saturday morning on the 17th Street Bridge. But is it?

Is it really an overreaction to question whether the Vero Beach City Council’s decision in May to extend from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. the hours during which bars and restaurants are permitted to serve alcoholic beverages was in the best interests of our community?

Is it a reach to wonder if Jaime Nicole Williams, the 21-year-old waitress and bartender who police say was driving drunk when her 2008 Honda veered into the westbound bicycle lane near the crest of the bridge, would have made it home without incident if she couldn’t get another drink after 1 a.m.?

Is it going too far to say that 16-year-old Cole Coppola, who was riding his bike across the bridge at about 1:45 a.m. when he was struck by Williams’ vehicle and knocked into the Indian River Lagoon, would still be alive today if the bars weren’t allowed to stay open for an extra hour?

Maybe so.

Maybe it’s not fair to pin this on the Council and blame the crash on the extra hour that bars in Vero Beach may now serve adult beverages, all because a young woman chose to drive after allegedly having too much to drink and the consequences proved fatal.

After all, lots of folks spent Friday night in the city’s beachside bars and restaurants.

Many of them drank. Some of them drove home, even crossing bridges to get there.

Only one of them killed somebody, was being held in jail, and now faces a DUI manslaughter charge.

So maybe this was nothing more than a tragic coincidence, a perfect storm of heartbreaking circumstances, a cruel twist of fate.

But it wasn’t an accident.

Certainly, it wasn’t unpredictable.

Though nobody could’ve foreseen these exact circumstances when the one-hour extension was unanimously approved – to give local bars and restaurants a chance to bring in more late-night revenue – there was concern among some Council members about the potential dangers.

“I still think this is just going to enable somebody to get drunker than they already are,” said Councilman Craig Fletcher, who initially opposed the motion but ultimately voted for it. “I think anybody out drinking ought to be home by 1 a.m.”

Said Mayor Richard Winger: “This is one that I’d just as soon not vote on.”

In fact, the Council granted the extension of drinking hours on only a temporary basis, saying it would review the results of the 12-month test run before deciding whether to make it permanent next year.

The Council has asked city police to present a report next June on whether the extra hour has caused an increase in drunk-driving arrests.

“This puts an additional responsibility on the bar and restaurant owners to make sure people aren’t leaving excessively inebriated,” Councilwoman Pilar Turner said then.

And now?

Asked whether last weekend’s fatal crash on the bridge has prompted second-thoughts about allowing local bars and restaurants to serve alcohol until 2 a.m., Turner responded, “That’s an interesting question.”

She paused, then continued: “It’s a terrible tragedy and, hopefully, we won’t have another one. But can we blame it on this one thing? It’s certainly something to look at, something to be considered. We already had some concerns about it. That’s why we put a time limit on it.”

Neither the Vero Beach Police Department nor the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office were able to immediately provide statistics on drunk-driving arrests during the past four months.

In making their pitch to the Council in May, however, local bar and restaurant owners presented a poll that claimed 25 percent of their alcohol sales came between midnight and 1 a.m. So it’s a good bet sales are pretty good between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m.

But does that mean the extra hour contributed to what happened on the bridge?


One of the Friday night diners at Trattoria Dario on South Beach said they saw Williams enter the restaurant at approximately 11:30 p.m. and take a seat at the corner of the bar, where she drank wine and chatted with other customers.

“After we finished dinner, we moved to the bar,” said the diner, who requested anonymity. “She seemed to know the bartenders well, and she was sitting next to a guy who looked like he worked in a restaurant.

“I overheard her say she was a waitress at the Citrus Grillhouse and that she had a rough day at work – she got a $5 tip on a $300 bill – but she seemed to be in great spirits and was very nice,” the diner added. “She even struck up a conversation with us. She said she had just gone on a vacation in Costa Rica and that she was a ‘Dad’s girl.’ She seemed like a sweet girl and had a lot of life to her.

“She was drinking, maybe two or three glasses of wine while we were there, but she didn’t seem drunk or sloppy or anything. We stayed until about 1 a.m., and she was still there when we left.”

Less than an hour later, Williams was on the 17th Street bridge and dialing 911.

Did Williams continue drinking there? Did she go somewhere else for a nightcap?

Vero Beach police spokeswoman Anna Carden said the department’s investigation is ongoing.

“I didn’t know it was her until I saw her picture on the news,” the diner said. “It was such a shock.”

It was a shock to all of us who live in this Mayberry-like community. It’s always a shock when a young life is lost, especially in such a senseless and unnecessary way.

But only the circumstances surrounding this tragedy should shock us.

Nobody should be surprised that someone was killed in what appears to be an alcohol-related crash that occurred 15 minutes before last call – especially now that the bars are open until 2 a.m. and, as Fletcher predicted, somebody can get drunker than they already are.

Nobody should be surprised if it happens again.

And if it does, is it OK to overreact then?

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