Sober-cab meeting draws interest; advocates push for local program

Judge James Dehn (standing) of the 10th District helped facilitate a Jan. 9 meeting in Princeton about starting a local Safe Ride program.
Judge James Dehn (standing) of the 10th District helped facilitate a Jan. 9 meeting in Princeton about starting a local Safe Ride program.

Princeton – A group of about 25 people met Monday night at the Princeton Police and Fire complex to talk about the possibility of starting a local Safe Ride program.
Judge James Dehn in the 10th District, a longtime proponent of the program in Isanti County, facilitated the meeting with a mix of people that included other judges, several bar owners, law enforcement and probation officers as well as others. Everyone around the table acknowledged the negative effects of drunken driving: People die, get hurt and go to jail.
Dehn said, “When we heard that Cambridge Cab had come to Princeton (Princeton Cab), we thought why not bring the program here?”
Mille Lacs County Patrol Capt. Jason Lasart said, “This program saves lives.”
He characterized the task of making a death notification due to drunken driving as “horrific.” Dehn said judges face the challenges of trying to hand down justice when there are two grieving families. He said the program started in Isanti in 2005, and from 2006-2013, DUI arrests decreased by 70 percent.
Loren Davis, a former bar owner in the Cambridge-Isanti area who serves as the volunteer chairman of the Minnesota Safe Ride committee in Isanti County, briefed the group on how it could work in Princeton. He said in Isanti, the price of a $10 ride is split five ways among the bar owners, Safe Ride and three beverage distributors.
A tentative program in Princeton could start with $5 each from bar owners and from Safe Ride. Other programs have raised money by soliciting donations and partnerships with their alcoholic-beverage distributors and the organizations that make money selling pull-tabs in bars. Dehn said Safe Ride would donate $500 if the local group decides to start in Princeton or Mille Lacs County.
Logistically, the program requires vouchers that bartenders fill out for patrons. The bar calls the cab and then the cab driver comes in to get the patron and voucher, which has the address. The $10 voucher gets them a sober ride home anywhere within a 2.3-mile radius of the city; after that the rider pays a metered rate.
Davis said as a bar owner, it was easy to see the benefit of the program because he’d come in the next morning to open and see cars in the parking lot. He knew those patrons would be back soon, if not coming in for lunch when they retrieved the vehicle.
He said Safe Ride in Isanti gave few rides its first month, but it’s grown. Rides for December through two cab companies totaled 355; the total number of rides since the program started is more than 21,000. Dehn mentioned a billboard that helped the concept spread; it said: “Does your favorite bar have Safe Ride? Ask.”
He said the Safe Ride program also exists in Pine, Kanabec, Sherburne and Wright counties and is funded a bit differently in each place. In Pine County, a single $1,000 donation from a pull-tab organization funds the whole program for the year.
The Sherburne County program that started a year ago and is a half-half split in which bars and Safe Ride each pay $5, with distributors donating money and table-tent advertising. Cheryl Turck is a probation officer in Sherburne County and has volunteered to coordinate the program there; she said she’d help anyone who wanted to do the same in Mille Lacs County.
Davis said the program also saves the taxpayer-funded time of law enforcement in processing drunken drivers – about four hours each – which doesn’t account for prosecution, court and probation or other follow-up.
“I have said for years,” commented Davis, “the best way to keep this program going is one box of pull tabs per bar per year.”
He named a few of the organizations and entities that give to the existing Safe Ride programs, such as the casino, several distributors and local nonprofits that sell pull-tabs in the bars. Safe Ride is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, and the group talked about raffle opportunities and other ways to raise funds for it.
Attorney Damien Toven asked if the program would cover all of Mille Lacs County or just Princeton and if there was any idea how much money would be needed to start it or how many rides it would give.
Everyone speculates that the program would start slowly and that ride numbers would be difficult to estimate. Davis said the 12-year-old Isanti Safe Rides cost about $11,000 per year. The group talked about starting in Princeton on Friday and Saturday nights and then expanding as more bars joined and funds became available. Princeton Police Chief Todd Frederick said he could think of about 10 bars in the area.
Davis said, “The bars are the ones that have to push it.”
The group members talked about how some bars’ answer to drunken driving is for a private car to take a drunk person and charge for the ride or for an employee to give the person a ride. The officials said those well-intended rides can result in accidents, injuries, lawsuits and sometimes assaults. It’s essential for anyone giving rides for money to have commercial liability insurance, the group members said.
A few of the bar owners started thinking aloud about who they could talk to about donations and support. While nobody at the meeting volunteered to be the local coordinator, there generally seemed to be enthusiasm about a Princeton program and agreement that Safe Ride is a benefit.
Davis said for now, people could contact him for more information and if anyone happened to get a commitment for funds, checks could be made payable to Minnesota Safe Ride, with Princeton in the reference line, and then mailed to P.O. Box 167, Cambridge, 55008.