It's around 1 on a chilly Saturday night. My sisters and I have spent the evening downtown, dancing and singing ourselves hoarse. We've also been drinking, not so much that we're slurring our words or tripping on our own feet, but enough that we shouldn't be driving.
Normally on a night like this, we'd call a cab, split the fare, and hope the car we've left behind doesn't get ticketed, towed or vandalized before we return the following day. Tonight, however, we're using Designated Driver in Colorado Springs, a new service that drives you and your car home free.
Here's how it works: A team of two volunteer drivers picks you up, you sign a release form, and one volunteer drives you home in your car while the other follows. No joke, it doesn't cost a thing. (Though gratuities are welcome since the drivers work for free and pay for their own gas.)
"We're trying to eliminate the reasons why people make poor choices," says co-owner Nonie Rispin. "If it's free and we get their car home, there's really very little left to argue about."
No time to wait
During my ride home, there isn't enough room in our car with Nonie, so I get into a truck with Larry Colatriano, the other volunteer driver. I have a decent buzz, but Larry and I have a good conversation, me whispering because I've lost my voice. I ask him why he does this; he says he's had a personal conviction to do something community-minded and to stick with it.
In a later interview, the 51-year-old handyman puts it this way: "We're helping people. We're saving lives every time we're out there."
Started by Nonie and her husband, Jason, Designated Driver gave its first ride on New Year's Eve and has been out almost nightly since. Currently, there are about 10 volunteer drivers, including Nonie's son.
Nonie, 49, and Jason, 43, owned a local flooring installation business for 10 years, but family medical issues and a sagging economy forced them to close. For their next venture, they wanted to do something that made a difference, Nonie says. After learning about a designated driver service in Pueblo, the Rispins decided to start their own here.
The free service is supported solely through community sponsorships, both from businesses and individuals. Current sponsors include eight local businesses, mostly bars, but eventually Nonie wants to have enough sponsors to start paying the drivers and creating jobs. She also wants to employ enough drivers to break up the city into zones, to reduce waiting time.
"It's gonna be quite some time before it's generating any cash flow," she says. "But we decided that if we waited until we had enough money however much that is to do something like this, there would be too many more DUIs, too many possible deaths, ruined careers and marriages."
Enough to go around
A few years ago, a drunk driver killed Nonie's cousin while she was out jogging. And Nonie was becoming aware that Colorado Springs was developing a reputation as a town full of drunks. In November 2007,
Men's Health magazine rated it the nation's third-drunkest city. According to Sgt. Kevin Miyakusu, the Colorado Springs Police Department made 2,945 arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs in 2008, up 20 percent from 2007.
"In my opinion, it's just unacceptable," Nonie says. "It doesn't have to be that way, and if the whole community would just jump on board and we all worked together, then we should be able to do something about it."
Sounds like a win-win situation, right? Well, yes, unless you're a cab company. Fred Hair, general manager of the local Yellow Cab office, declined to comment on Designated Driver specifically, but he did say the company's busiest hours are on weekends between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. So it's safe to assume that Designated Driver could affect Yellow Cab's revenues.
Nonie says she doesn't want to hurt the cab companies' profits.
"I sure am hoping the taxi companies don't see us as a threat," she says. "When people have had too much to drink, taking a taxi is a great choice. But when they need their cars in the morning, that's where we come in."
The service comes at a time when Colorado courts have been issuing harsher penalties for DUIs and DWAIs. Since the beginning of this year, new consequences for drunk driving include mandatory jail time and one- to five-year license revocation for repeat offenders.
That may help deter some people from making bad choices, but certainly not everyone, every time. So Nonie's determined to make Designated Driver work.
"Failure is absolutely not an option," she says. "I don't care what it takes, because I am not giving up. There is such a need, I just couldn't live with myself if I gave up."