YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


After Bar Patrons Drink, Volunteers Drive

Nightclubs, taverns help support sober ride program, which has six chapters in California.

August 05, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

Jason Shell was swigging some happy-hour beers and waiting for a buddy to join him at a bar in downtown San Diego. He was supposed to crash at his friend's digs, within walking distance of the bar. Five pints later, the friend still hadn't showed. Shell knew he was in no shape to drive home.

So he dialed the number on a card he had picked up in the bar's restroom earlier in the evening. About 10 minutes later, two volunteers from the Designated Drivers Assn. showed up, ready to escort him home. One volunteer drove Shell in Shell's BMW while the other followed to pick up Shell's chauffeur.

"It sounded like a good program," Shell said. "Sometimes things don't end up the way you expected. You think you have another ride home. You've probably got a car you don't want to leave downtown or [you don't want to] worry about tickets."

Shell, 28, was the association's first ride home in Southern California on that summer evening two years ago. Since then, the organization has expanded across the state, opening its latest chapter in Los Angeles last month.

The nonprofit group began in Richmond, Va., in 1994. In addition to Los Angeles and San Diego, California chapters also operate in Sacramento, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach.

Unlike other drunken-driving-prevention programs, which typically offer education about the dangers of drinking and driving, this group takes its program directly to those who need it, when they need it, said Nick Yaya, Los Angeles executive director.

"We provide an alternative for people, not just telling them, 'Don't drink and drive,' " said the 30-year-old Northridge native. "We're reaching out to people where they need it most: at the bars and nightclubs."

To ensure safety, program directors check the backgrounds of volunteers and administer breath tests for alcohol before sending them out to the clubs. They hold 9:30 p.m. orientation sessions where they lay some ground rules: Respect establishments and customers, refrain from drinking or taking drugs, obey all traffic laws and don't make stops for cigarettes or food.

A similar driving program, Designated Drivers Inc., serves Las Vegas and the Inland Empire, but charges $40 a ride. The Designated Drivers Assn. charges after the first 15 miles to help volunteers pay for gas. They ask for $10 for a 20-mile ride and $20 or more for trips over 25 miles, but will not deny anyone a sober drive home.

Each chapter gets about 25 calls nightly and spends about $100,000 annually, Yaya said. The money pays for posters and business cards, walkie-talkies, salaries for one or two full-time staff members, rent for office space and insurance.

Monthly contributions from local bars and restaurants, which range from $100 to $400 based on size, make up about 60% of the organization's budget. It also receives grants from car dealerships, Native American tribal councils, insurance companies and liquor distributors.

Yaya considers the contributions an opportunity for bars and distributors to address some of the consequences of drinking and driving.

Not everyone agrees.

"We appreciate the program but there is no direct partnership," said Paula Birdsong, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving California. "We can't take alcohol money and say we're fighting against drunk driving."

Some bars also have refused to support the group because they say it doesn't fit their needs. Joe Plescia, one of the owners of Club Raven in Sacramento, said the contract didn't make much sense for his 40-stool bar.

Not only is his bar small and close to a residential neighborhood, but his patrons tend to plan ahead if they expect to overindulge, he said.

"Most of the people who come in here are very good about taking cabs home," Plescia said. "Or they leave their cars here [in the club's parking lot]. Younger groups travel in groups of three or four and have designated drivers nowadays."

But other bar owners believe the association helps them take care of their customers. "The whole idea is to go out and have fun and not have anyone get hurt," said Patrick Mahan, who owns Sacramento's Pine Cove Tavern. He contributes $200 a month to the association.

The service seems particularly well suited to the needs of California's party scene, said Jennifer Guarino, a waitress who works weekends at Hollywood's chic White Lotus, which contributes to the program. Guarino, in fact, keeps a stack of the association's cards in her waist belt and talks up the service to customers as she drops off their check.

"It's not like New York, where I used to live, where you can hop in a cab and be home in 10 minutes," she said. "Out here, everyone drives. Once in a blue moon, people will be smart and take a cab."

The group is still trying to establish itself in Hollywood. One recent Saturday, volunteers spent four hours wading through crowds of martini drinkers, slapping wallet cards down on liquor-soaked bar tops, and shouting above remixed Madonna songs, "Check this out, bro! A free ride home in your own car!"

Women in tube tops and slick-haired men in silk shirts told the volunteers that they appreciated the offer. But at 2:55 a.m., the volunteers still had not received a call and quit for the night.

Yaya acknowledged that a good night in Hollywood may yield only three calls, but he said he is hoping that the idea will catch on. He wants to expand to West Hollywood and Santa Monica in six months.

"You can't preach to them or force them to use the service," he said. "You just have to hope that they will take advantage of it."

The Designated Drivers Assn. can be reached at (888) 311-SAFE in L.A. and (866) 949-SAFE in Orange County.

Los Angeles Times Articles