Safe Ride Car dealers among those backing program to keep impaired New Year’s Eve revelers off road

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer December 22, 2010 05:00 pm
BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH
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Sometimes doing the right thing gets to be a big job. A community-minded citizen doing his best to save lives reaches a point where he needs some help.

And Kevin Loveland, founder of the “Safe Ride” program that’s prevented an untold number of tragic accidents and kept countless people from getting drunk driving tickets, is getting the help he needs these days.

The program rolls like always this New Year’s Eve, with a boost from the business community. Three local car dealerships are chipping in, donating the vehicles that will transport revelers, free of charge and with no questions asked, around Island City and La Grande.

M.J. Goss Motors, Legacy Ford and Frontier Motors all stepped forward with the aid when asked by Jerry Hopkins, Loveland’s right hand man in the Safe Ride Program.

“The dealers really appreciate what we do, and they really take care of us. They’d rather see a person get the ride home than get a ticket, or worse,” Hopkins said.

The program’s roots go back to July 17, 1997, the day Loveland’s best friend, Brett Marten, died in a drunk driving crash in Montana.

Nobody thought it would happen, not in a million years. Marten was a good driver, someone who always seemed in control, even in dangerous situations.

But alcohol made a tragic difference.

“I never imagined he’d lose control of his car, even if he was drinking. Well, I was wrong,” Loveland, owner of Loveland Funeral Chapel, said.

Marten’s death devastated Loveland, and following a period of mourning, it spurred him to action.

Using his own vehicles and paying for gas out of his own pocket, he started his Safe Ride Program in La Grande on New Year’s Eve 2001.

The concept was simple. People with too much to drink that night could call Loveland at his funeral home and get a ride anywhere in La Grande and Island City, free of charge and no questions asked.

Only a few calls came in that first year. But Loveland kept at it. Word spread and more — many more — people began to get the message.

Working closely with Hopkins, Loveland expanded the program to include other events, especially the Eastern Oregon Livestock Show and the Elgin Stampede. He plans to go on growing the program.

See RIDES, 2B“Eventually, we want to do every major event in Union County where alcohol is served,” he said.

By now, Safe Ride serves hundreds of people every time it runs. Hopkins estimates, for example, that he and two other drivers transported some 900 revelers at last summer’s EOLS.

Drivers carry people all over Union County from the EOLS and the Stampede. During New Year’s, however, trips are limited to

La Grande and Island City.

Even with the smaller coverage area, the drivers go non-stop from about 6:30 p.m. New Year’s Eve into the wee hours of New Year’s Day, said Hopkins.

“New Year’s has grown every year. Last year, two drivers hauled 300 people,” he said.

But as the program has grown, so has its cost. At different times, Loveland has paid for vehicle rentals, and has gone on shelling out money for fuel.

A couple of years ago, District Attorney Tim Thompson, head of the Union County Victim’s Impact Panel took a hand, offering some of the money the panel assesses people who take DUII diversion classes.

During recent Safe Ride events, Victim Impact Panel money has for paid one-half to two-thirds of the gas costs.

Lindon Higbee, owner of Frontier Motors, said his company has helped Loveland out with the rodeo events before, but never with the New Year’s program.

He said he admires Loveland’s commitment to the community and considers Safe Ride more than worthy of support.

“What better cause can there be than saving people’s lives?” Higbee said.

Mark Goss, owner of M.J. Goss Motors, agreed that getting behind Safe Ride is the right thing to do.

“We believe in what Kevin’s doing,” Goss said. “He was always down here renting Suburbans, but the program got so big it became obvious he needed some help. All he had to do was ask, and we were on board.”

No matter who supplies the rigs or who pays for the gas, local law enforcement agencies are grateful for the program.

“It’s extremely effective and we’re a huge supporter,” said La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey. “It reduces the likelihood of people driving drunk during those high-volume times.”

Harvey said he is glad the program has so much support from the community.

“We greatly appreciate the support from the private sector,” he said.

Union County Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen said Loveland’s program makes it possible for deputies to focus on other problems besides drunk driving.

“It helps take a burden off us. We have an obligation to keep the roads safe and we work at it, but this frees up more time for other matters,” he said.

The number to call for a free, safe ride this New Year’s is 541-963-5022. Three drivers will be on call throughout the night and will do their all to keep up with the demand.

“All we ask is for people to be patient,” Loveland said.