CANYON COUNTRY — It's 1:46 a.m. in the Bat Cave, the secret location for Safe Rides.
After four hours of videos, soda and pizza, and trying to sample all 39 flavors from a jar of jelly beans, the tired teens--three boys and three girls--prepare to call it a night.
"I'm sick of jelly beans," Kelly Twarowski, a junior at Canyon High, blurts out.
"Hey, the yellow ones with red spots are good," counters classmate Mike Meyer.
Suddenly, the phone rings. Everyone becomes quiet.
"Hello, Safe Rides," Twarowski answers.
A 17-year-old boy says he's drunk and needs a ride home.
Colin MacNeil, a junior at Canyon High, and his girlfriend, Candice Crane, also a Canyon student, pinpoint the boy's location on a giant Thomas Bros. map, grab a bucket that contains rubber gloves, a cellular phone, blanket and flashlight, and head to their car to make the final pickup on a Friday night that has turned into Saturday.
Santa Clarita Valley Safe Rides was launched in December 1986 after the alcohol-related deaths of six local teenagers within 16 months. Since then, it has provided more than 7,000 rides for young people who don't want to get into a car with an intoxicated driver, or don't trust themselves to drive.
It has grown to more than 80 students from Canyon, Hart, Saugus and Valencia high schools who volunteer as drivers, navigators and dispatchers.
There are Safe Rides programs scattered in cities and on college campuses around the country. One of the largest is in south Orange County. It is operated through Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo and involves more than 300 volunteers from 10 high schools.
At least 14 such programs operated in Los Angeles County in the 1980s. Liability insurance concerns, however, put most of them out of business. But the Santa Clarita program, which serves an area with one of the county's highest rates of driving-under-the-influence arrests, remains strong.
Authorities and other supporters dismiss criticism that Safe Rides enables minors to drink, saying that since 1988 there have been no teen deaths in the Santa Clarita Valley linked to teens driving under the influence.
"This is the greatest thing I've ever seen," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Mike Shapiro, who spent a recent evening observing the program. "When I was this age, I was out partying. I wouldn't give up my Friday, Saturday night to help other kids. This is awesome."
There were 2,210 alcohol-related traffic deaths among youths between 15 and 20 in 1998, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Santa Clarita Safe Rides is making an impact, participants say, by offering free rides home on Friday and Saturday nights to impaired teenagers who don't want to endanger themselves or others.
"You make a difference, especially among your friends," MacNeil said. "It's pretty much a given that most high school students who like to have a good time are drinking. A lot of them don't want their parents to know. Some nights you get a call or two. Others, it's ringing off the hook. Maybe of the couple nights I've worked, I've saved a life or two."
Insurance liability concerns forced Mothers Against Drunk Driving to drop sponsorship of the Safe Rides programs in the San Fernando Valley in the late 1980s, according to Tina Pasco, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of MADD. The Santa Clarita chapter turned to the Boy Scouts of America for its liability insurance.
"I still believe kids need a ride even though they know the drinking age in California is 21," Pasco said. "MADD just can't be involved."
Enter Penny Upton of Canyon Country, whose leadership and commitment helped convince community leaders that Safe Rides is needed.
"People say, 'Aren't you just enabling them [to drink]?' We have to deal with this immediately," said Upton, who co-founded the Santa Clarita program. "Let's get them off the road."
Upton said those receiving rides are promised confidentiality, with no information passed to parents, schools or law enforcement.
The Santa Clarita Sheriff's Station ranks second to Lancaster's in total DUI arrests made by Los Angeles County deputies. Last year, among 17 stations, Lancaster reported 693 arrests and Santa Clarita 559.
"There are a lot of people who like to drink and drive here," Shapiro said. "Most of the deputies at this station live in the [Santa Clarita] valley, and we're trying to protect our family and friends. We will arrest drunk drivers."
MacNeil, who like more than half of the Safe Rides volunteers is a campus athlete, has a 4.3 grade-point average and wants to become a doctor.
Volunteering for Safe Rides looks good on his college resume, but the motive behind MacNeil's participation is far more personal.