DEL MAR — A year ago, a handful of students at Torrey Pines High School decided to sacrifice their Friday and Saturday nights and launched an innovative program called Safe Rides.
Their mission: To increase awareness of the hazards of drunk driving by providing free, confidential rides home to students too tipsy to take the wheel or fearful of riding with an intoxicated friend.
Modeled after a similar program in Darien, Conn., Safe Rides received much praise and aided many grateful students in its first year. It was also deluged with crank calls and was frequently abused by freeloaders.
"I don't think kids took us too seriously or realized what a problem drunk driving is," said Torrey Pines senior Joan Greenburg, one of the founders of Safe Rides.
Today, however, the program holds a respected place on campus and beyond. Only one crank call has been received since Safe Rides resumed on Nov. 30--it had stopped in June when the school year ended--and Greenburg said students taking advantage of the service are now doing so "for the right reasons."
Moreover, the program's success--combined with a growing national awareness of drunk drivers and their victims--has sparked interest at other San Diego County schools.
"I've had tons of calls from all over," said Greenburg, now one of two presidents of Safe Rides. "People seem to be realizing how awful and unnecessary it is to lose someone because of drunk driving."
Recently, Greenburg and a few colleagues discussed Safe Rides with a group of young drug and alcohol abusers at Harbor View Medical Center. Students or officials at schools in La Jolla, Escondido and El Cajon have expressed interest in the program. Even Palomar College in San Marcos may start its own version of Safe Rides, and Chula Vista High School is now organizing a Safe Rides.
Norma Phillips, founder of the San Diego County Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, said MADD hopes to help establish Safe Rides in all of San Diego County's high schools within the next year.
The unique and most appealing features of the service, Greenburg said, are that "it's run by students for students and is completely confidential." Confidentiality ensures that drunken youths fearful of parental retribution will not hesitate to call.
Each Friday and Saturday night from 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., five students gather at the program's new headquarters in donated office space in Rancho Santa Fe. One student serves as dispatcher, answering calls and sending out teams of two students to any location in Del Mar, Solana Beach or Rancho Santa Fe. A volunteer parent is on hand in case of emergencies.
Students are trained to use citizens' band radios to communicate with headquarters. They also receive basic instructions on how to assess the condition of a drunken person.
The students who provide the rides are not driven by academic credit or the promise of some scholastic or parental recognition. Instead, their goal is "the satisfaction of maybe saving someone's life one day," Greenburg said.
Occasionally, the Safe Rides students get small boosts of encouragement.
"The other night this girl called and said she needed a ride because her boyfriend was wasted," Greenburg said. "Later, the guy called and said, 'Thank God for Safe Rides.' That kind of thing really makes it worth it."
Because "it's hard to get volunteers over the holidays, and we (didn't) want (the Safe Ride) kids driving New Year's Eve," Safe Rides has been temporarily suspended, Greenburg said. Beginning Jan. 11, the student drivers can again be reached by calling the Safe Rides program at 481-7878.