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Safe Ride: Hospitality industry sponsors rides home from bars

Bill Smith, owner of First City Taxi/Safe Ride, left, and Karl Jacobson, owner of Slim's Bar & Grill and member of the Beltrami Area Beverage Association, display a Safe Ride van. People who call for rides after 10 p.m. can pay $5 for transportation within Bemidji city limits and $8 for rides up to five miles out. Safe Ride also serves Turtle River and Wilton. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

One sub-zero winter night, Bill Smith recalled, he was waiting in his limousine outside a downtown bar when four young women came out. The women weren't dressed for the cold, and they needed a ride back to Bemidji State University.

Smith said they offered him $50 for a lift, but he had to decline because he was contracted to the party inside the bar. Nevertheless, he worried about the women walking home in the freezing night.

Sometime later, Smith was lunching at Keg N Cork and brought up the need for rides to the owner Mitch Rautio. Rautio immediately agreed. The result in January 2009 was a meeting with Shelly Baker of Big North Distributing, Karl Jacobson of Slim's Bar & Grill, Rautio and other members of the hospitality industry to organize Safe Ride. At about the same time, bar owners and Big North Distributing incorporated as the nonprofit Beltrami Area Beverage Association (BaBa) for mutual support of the project.

"The first time I saw (a transport project) done was about 1990 in Boston," Smith said. "Boston University has vans running all around. Back then, they took heat for it because it promoted drinking."

But Safe Ride and BaBa's mission is quite the opposite - "Promoting Responsible Enjoyment of Adult Beverages." And that means no drinking and driving.

Smith sold his limo and obtained personal transportation license and insurance. Since July 4, 2009, his business, which employs 10 drivers and four vans, has operated as First City Taxi (444-TAXI) until 10 p.m. charging the standard Minnesota cab rate of $2 plus $2.50 per mile. From 10 p.m. until about 2 a.m., his company is Safe Ride, which charges a flat rate of $5 per person for transportation within Bemidji city limits, Turtle River and Wilton and $8 per person within a five-mile radius of town.

To make these rates possible, Safe Ride is sponsored by 24 businesses, which pay $250 per year for their names to be advertised on vans. Individuals also have put up money to support the project, and a $1,000 grant came from the Drug Free Coalition of North Central Minnesota.

"There have been people who have donated right out of the blue, whether they're in the industry or not," Jacobson said. "Donations are welcome. I really commend Bill. He's not being a burden to any taxpayer. It's been really a commitment from Bill."

"It's been really easy because everybody is on board," Smith said.

Smith said there hasn't been a problem with cars left downtown when the owners need a ride home. For the most part, he said, people plan ahead, often taking the taxi downtown earlier in the evening. However, he has vouchers to put on windshields so cars parked overnight aren't ticketed or towed.

When Safe Ride started, Smith said he and his drivers served bar patrons from 10 p.m. to closing Thursday to Saturday. In October, they extended the service to seven nights a week.

As of its first anniversary, he said, Safe Ride had served more than 5,500 people.

Jacobson said the hospitality industry has had challenges dealing with law enforcement, which aggressively investigates possible drunk-driving offenses. Safe Ride has helped alleviate customers' concerns about being arrested, he said.

"Our relationship with law enforcement has improved," he said.

He said bartenders are also careful not to over-serve customers.

"We want to be responsible," Jacobson said.

Smith agreed, adding that young people are more mature in their drinking habits than in the past.

"The bartenders are that age group, and they're watching over them," he said.

Jacobson also recommended that bar owners become members of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, which, besides working as a lobbying group for the hospitality industry, also provides safe-serving training.

Jay Passa, Bemidji State University health education coordinators, said the university endorses Safe Ride.

"At Bemidji State University, a peer education student group called Lifestyle Educators has teamed up with the Bemidji community's Safe Ride Program to help prevent impaired driving by BSU students," he said.

The Lifestyle Educators teach other students about the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol or riding with impaired drivers.

"These tactics are part of a comprehensive program to reduce high-risk drinking by college students," Passa said. "Prevention programs target times during the year when students are at the greatest risk of high alcohol consumption and, as a result, impaired driving such as the first week back on campus, Homecoming, Halloween and graduation."

He said BSU research showed a 4 percent decline in the number of students who reported driving under the influence between 2007 and 2010.

For more information about BaBa, contact Jacobson at 766-8729; Davey Mills, owner of Bar 209, at 929-7257; or Rautio at 760-0099.