A carload of guys on the hunt for a late-night food fix cruised into a drive-through, placed a huge order and nursed Coronas as they waited.
They didn’t blink an eye when asked to pull past the window and wait by the door – a common way to prevent big orders from holding up the line. But Tony Proctor, the manager at the Third Avenue Carl’s Jr. in Spokane, had a different reason for asking the obviously drunken driver to pull forward a few weekends ago.
“We try to make a point of getting their license plate,” he said, explaining it helps police get dangerous drivers off the road quicker.
Proctor and many of his fast-food colleagues across the Inland Northwest, particularly those working the late shifts, are credited by police with helping form an unofficial front line of defense against drunken driving.
Call it the McDUI.
Police officers, dispatchers, lawyers and fast-food workers say it happens all the time: Carloads of revelers don’t bother to hide their open beers. Or a woman with an open beer and a child in the backseat honks and yells at employees to hurry up. Sometimes there’s no alcohol visible – it’s the smell that gets employees’ attention.
“One a.m. at Jack in the Box or Taco Bell, you know who’s in those lines,” said Spokane police Officer Tim Moses. “Everybody who’s had a few beers and has the munchies.”
Fast-food workers know it, too. But just because they see something illegal doesn’t mean they’ll call every time. They say it depends on who’s working, how drunk the driver is and how busy the restaurant is at the time.
“I’m sure it happens a lot more than we get calls on,” Moses said. “We enjoy getting them. It helps a lot when citizens tell us what’s going on.”
Police departments don’t track the number of DUI calls that come from fast-food places. But they say the calls come in regularly.
“Two or three times a week and at least a couple times a weekend,” Moses said.
Post Falls police estimate 10 percent of their DUI complaints are made by fast-food workers.
“We can get anywhere from one per week to three or four per night,” said Lt. Pat Knight. “They get involved enough that they get an idea of what we need.”
Dispatchers look for descriptive details like car color, make, model, number of passengers, what they’re wearing and where they’re sitting in the car when relaying reports of drunken driving.
Drive-through workers have what police say they envy: a close, elevated view of the inside of vehicles. And after an order is placed, they can take as long as they wish to fill it.
“The people at the fast-food places, they’re leaning through the window, looking at stuff,” said Tim Vulles, a Coeur d’Alene police officer. “And they’ll sometimes hold up the order to help us out.”
Police in Surrey, B.C., just south of Vancouver, heard from fast-food workers so often that earlier this year they decided to start hanging out at the restaurants late at night. Called Project WULF (Would U Like Fries?), the program stations officers inside drive-through windows and others in patrol cars near the restaurants.
When the drive-through worker or inside officer suspects the driver at the window is impaired, the officer radios a description to the officer outside, who initiates the stop, said Surrey police spokesman Sgt. Roger Morrow.
“We just got to thinking, ‘Where do the drunks go after they hit the bars?’ ” Morrow said. “A lot of them stop by the local burger joints and chow down.”
Police say they don’t have the resources for such a large-scale effort, but they know how often drive-through lines can be hot spots for people who have been drinking, especially late at night or early in the morning.
“Nine out of 10 have been drinking if not 10 out of 10,” said Spokane police Officer Brian Eckersley. “When we go in there to get our own food they’ll tell us about the drunks that have driven through there.”
A balancing act
Just because a fast-food employee sees something illegal doesn’t mean he or she calls police. No fast-food company trains its employees to look for illegal activity. Customer service is job one.
“We try not to get our customers in trouble,” said Nikki Carrier, a manager at the Jack in the Box on Third Avenue in Spokane. “Really, we don’t have the time.”
Jennifer Everett, who works at the Zip’s Drive-In on Third Avenue, says she sees open beer cans or suspected drunken patrons every now and then. Ken Carvalho has seen people come through the Wendy’s drive-through where he works with open 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor in their laps. Caitlin Zimmer remembers a time a few months ago when someone in the Division Street Wendy’s drive-through asked if she’d like to smoke marijuana through a bong held out the car window.
The stories had similar outcomes – none of the workers called the police.
“If you think about it, maybe we should,” Zimmer said.
Sometimes, workers say, it just doesn’t seem necessary. Other times they’re too busy.
Revenge on obnoxious customers seems to be a common reason to call.
“If we get harassed and threatened, then we’ll call,” Carrier said.
Everett said she would call the police when she worked at the Zip’s in Cheney and encountered Eastern Washington University students slurring their words and sometimes fighting in the parking lot. But she has yet to see anything that would prompt her to call in a report at the downtown Spokane Zip’s.
McDonald’s restaurants wouldn’t allow employees to discuss what, if any, efforts are taken when drunken drivers are observed at their drive-through windows.
Whether a suspect gets busted can depend on where police are when the call is made and the quality of the information provided, police say.
“If they’ve already gotten away from the Taco Bell or whatever, can you figure out where they’ll be heading? Can you intercept them?” Eckersley said.
Spokane defense lawyer Scott Staab, who handles DUIs, said it happens “all the time.”
He’s currently handling a DUI case that a drive-through worker initiated and said he always has at least one in his open case file.
And it’s not a new trend. Staab recalls seeing drunken drivers while working at a Burger King in high school in the early 1980s.
“Some crazy people come through your drive-through,” he said.