HERO designated-driver campaign returns to its South Jersey roots for new phase

By ROB SPAHR Staff Writer pressofAtlanticCity.com

The HERO Campaign is traveling from city to city to promote a new program targeting the very place it started and is best known: the Jersey Shore.

“There are about 1,500 bars between Sandy Hook and Cape May,” said Bill Elliott, the campaign’s founder and chairman. “And, in a sense, we are trying to create a kind of ‘Good Housekeeping’ seal of approval for as many of those bars as possible, where you can see the HERO Campaign sticker on the door when you enter and see right away that they are trying to keep people safe.”

Leigh Ann Costantino, of Egg Harbor Township, a bartender at the Tun Tavern in Atlantic City, wipes down the bar. Behind her is one of the posters that are part of the new Jersey Shore HEROES campaign.

When the HERO Campaign was started in the fall of 2000, it was to serve as a tangible memory of Bill Elliott’s son, Navy Ensign John Elliott.

The Egg Harbor Township native and May 2000 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy was on his way home July 22 to celebrate his mother’s birthday when he was killed by a drunken driver – who had been arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated earlier in the evening but released to a friend by the State Police.

The marketing campaign, which encourages tavern owners to provide free nonalcoholic beverages to designated drivers, now spans several states.

Even though the HERO Campaign has received major support from national figures such as former first lady Laura Bush and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft – the Patriots are even expected to be part of a Boston-area fundraiser benefiting the campaign in July – Elliott said the localized Jersey Shore HEROES initiative could enable the campaign to be even more effective as a whole and, potentially, make it a viable national organization.

“We are trying to change behavior, and that’s a tall order … but we finally have the staff to be able to properly support, train and supply the bars with what they need to promote the HERO Campaign message,” said Elliott, a volunteer, adding that the campaign now has four full-time and three part-time staffers. “We want to curtail the image of the ‘Jersey Shore’ MTV program and show that the real ‘Jersey Shore’ is a place where you can have fun but also be safe.”

According to the State Police’s most recent Uniform Crime Report, the number of DWI arrests in Atlantic (1,592), Cape May (608) and Cumberland (806) counties in 2010 were the lowest in each of those counties in at least a decade. Ocean County’s total of 2,091 was its lowest since 2003.

And the statewide number of intoxicated drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2010 was 102, which was an improvement over 2009’s previous 20-year low of 105.

Elliott said the new program could also help to properly quantify, for the first time, how many businesses and designated drivers are actually taking advantage of the program, particularly through new wristbands that the campaign is asking bars to give to designated drivers.

Gregory Gregory, owner of Gregory’s Restaurant and Bar in Somers Point, says he supported the HERO Campaign early on.

“I know that you don’t need any additional work added to your plate,” Elliott said to a room full of Somers Point bar and restaurant owners during a May 30 presentation at Somers Point City Hall. “But even if it’s initially just subtracting the number of bracelets we give you at the end of the summer from what we give you, it’s a start.”

Gregory Gregory, a third-generation owner of Gregory’s Restaurant and Bar in Somers Point, was among the first to sign up to be part of the initial HERO Campaign. And when Elliott and other representatives from the campaign pitched the new Jersey Shore HEROES initiative – which will run through the summer – to Somers Point bar owners May 30, Gregory was near the front of the line again.

“I don’t know how you can quantify it, but the HERO Campaign is absolutely working,” Gregory said. “It might not necessarily be through people wearing bracelets or calling themselves heroes. But what we are seeing a lot more of is people telling us they’re the D.D., and we are seeing a lot more cars in our parking lot the next morning, which are positive signs. These are things that were never thought of years ago.”

And even though the program encourages businesses to give nonalcoholic beverages away for free, Gregory called the expense “not a big deal.”

“We are in the business of fun, not in the business of having to call people up to tell them there’s been a tragedy,” he said. “We’d much rather pay for their soda tonight, so they are able to come back and enjoy themselves tomorrow night.”

The Somers Point meeting was not called by the HERO Campaign but rather newly appointed police Chief Michael Boyd as part of his ongoing effort to better unite his department with the city’s stakeholders.

The HERO Campaign, he said, was a logical early step.

“Somers Point has a long history with the HERO Campaign. In 2003, under former Chief Orville Mathis, we were the first town to enact John’s Law II, which has basically become a guidebook for how to handle DWIs,” said Boyd of the law, inspired by Ensign Elliott, that gives municipalities the power to enact laws that require authorities to keep a drunken driver in protective custody for eight hours or until the driver’s blood-alcohol level drops below 0.05 percent.

And as a result, Boyd said, the city has experienced a significant decline in DWI arrests.

“Back in the ’90s, we’d average about 100 DWI arrests a year; now we’re in the 60s,” Boyd said. “I’m sure there are other reasons for that number dropping, but it has coincided with this program being around. So maybe all of the signage and advertisements have had an effect in some way.”

The next meeting for the Jersey Shore HEROES campaign is scheduled for 4 p.m. June 14 at the Tun Tavern in Atlantic City.

More than 100 bars and restaurants have already signed up for the Jersey Shore HEROES campaign, but Elliott said he expected that group to be close to 500 by the end of June. Links to the participating businesses will be added to a list of “HERO Bars & Taverns” that will be kept on the campaign websites and sent to media outlets.

“All of the bars I’ve ever spoken to want to do the right thing and to keep their patrons safe. … We want to promote those who do,” Elliott said. “Because, at the end of the day, they’re the ones out there promoting the message at the time people need to hear it the most.”

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