Show & Tell

Bus Against Them Owners of local party-bus companies want to keep the drinks flowing, liquor laws be damned.

Max Kornell

On the night of Aug. 30, a bus rolled into Adams Morgan and deposited its sotted passengers onto 18th Street. The celebrants, about 30 of them, had hired The Caesar, one of Chariots for Hire’s pimped-out party buses, for a bachelor party. It cost about $1,000 for five hours and came with plenty of perks: a wooden floor, six flat-screen TVs, and three bar areas. All the customers had to do was bring their own booze.

Unfortunately, The Caesar also came with a bit of a buzz kill. As the partiers prepared to disembark, Chariots for Hire co-owner Courtney West says, the cops informed them they were breaking the law. D.C. Code prohibits drinking or possessing open containers of alcoholic beverages in vehicles, they said, and next time, both the company and the passengers could receive citations. It was the company’s second warning this year for the offense.

West, who says the Tyson’s Corner–based company is “trying to obey” the law but still allows customers to drink beer on the bus in D.C., doesn’t understand the statute’s logic. “[Patrons are] in an enclosed area, not leaving the vehicle with any of the alcohol, and being driven around by a professional, obviously sober chauffeur,” he says.

Andy Norman, co-founder and managing partner of the Sterling, Va.-based company KegBus, agrees. He says while the statute is “very good” when dealing with personal automobiles, “for hire” vehicles like his fleet of KegBuses ought to be exempt. “Any person, even a U.S. congressman that consumes an alcoholic beverage inside a vehicle in the District, by D.C. Code, they’re breaking the law,” he says. Now he’s contacting the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) to see if the law can be changed.

Norman isn’t afraid of a challenge. In the summer of 2001, he and four of his friends were having trouble deciding who was going to drive to a Jimmy Buffet show at Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Va. “No one likes to drive to a Jimmy Buffet concert,” he says.

So instead of designating drivers, they decided to buy a yellow bus and transform it into a party on wheels. They removed the seats and installed a bar and bathroom. “I did most of the electrical work,” Norman says, and a couple of his mechanic friends tuned the engine and replaced the tires. “It was sort of a guy’s project, a male bonding time,” he says. By the time of the Buffet concert, the bus was ready to hit the road.

Three years later, that bus had launched a business. “We took it places as a group, and we started getting a lot of requests,” he says. KegBus now includes four yellow school buses with capacities ranging from 10 to 35 people. As with Chariots for Hire, a group of customers typically reserves KegBus for an afternoon or evening, paying $750 for the first four hours and $150 for every hour after that. The package deal includes the bus, a “host,” who corrals customers and manages the outing’s itinerary, and a driver, who picks customers up at their homes or Metro stations. Rich Scott, a Reston resident, says he’s taken the KegBus about 10 times for birthdays, New Year’s Eve parties, and on random Friday nights. “It’s just better than drinking and driving,” he says. “A lot of my friends have DUIs, and I don’t want to join that statistic.” Norman says the bus is also popular for bachelor and bachelorette parties, sporting events, and day trips, and has traveled as far as Punxsutawney, Pa., for Groundhog Day.

Usually, though, the buses stay local. “Most of our business involves taking people from the suburbs to the city,” Norman says. Like D.C.’s other party buses, KegBus doesn’t provide alcohol for its passengers, but the company does permit them to bring their own. In places like Virginia and Maryland, Norman says, that’s perfectly legal, because the states make exceptions for “for hire” vehicles. Not so in D.C. According to ABRA spokesperson Cynthia Simms, D.C.’s prohibition against open containers in vehicles “also includes passengers who bring their own alcohol.”

Although KegBus has never been busted for noncompliance, Norman doesn’t want to take any chances. The company instructs customers that they, not KegBus, are responsible for complying with local laws regarding alcohol consumption, he says, and he’s contacted the alcohol administration to begin lobbying for an exception similar to those in Maryland and Virginia.

Exempting “for hire” vehicles wouldn’t just benefit his business, he says. It would also enhance the safety of area roads. “Over the past 12 months, our company has enabled thousands of customers to experience the nightlife of D.C. safely,” he wrote in a letter to the alcohol administration. “This keeps about 50 to 100 potentially drunk drivers off the road on any given weekend night.” He says he has no doubt that “lives have been saved” as a result of KegBus’ activities.

Whether or not his claim rings true, Norman’s plea isn’t falling on deaf ears. Simms says the alcohol board is considering whether to ask D.C. Council for a legislative change that would allow “for hire” companies like KegBus to be eligible for common carrier licenses, the same kinds of licenses that allow passengers to drink on boats and trains. That’s good, says frequent passenger Scott. “If it’s illegal,” he says, “you might as well drive yourself and get drunk. And that’s stupid.”

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