Although Jerry Hopkins of La Grande has not attended a New Year’s Eve party since 2001, he has driven to hundreds of such celebrations since then — and may have helped save numerous lives in the process.

Hopkins is the manager of the Loveland Safe Ride Home program, which was recently recognized for providing rides home in Union County during festivities where alcohol is traditionally consumed. Rides are provided free of charge to everyone requesting them.

“We just want to get people home safely,” Hopkins said.

The program was founded in 2001 by Kevin Loveland, the owner of Loveland Funeral Chapel, in honor of his friend Brett Marten, who died in an alcohol-related motor vehicle accident in 1997 in Montana. Safe Ride Home has since provided more than 50,000 free rides in Union County and has subsequently caught the
attention of safe driving
organizations like the
Oregon DUII Multi-Disciplinary Training Task Force, which gave the Loveland Safe Ride Home Program its 2017 DUII Group/Organization Advocate of-the-Year award.

The award was presented earlier this month at a ceremony in Bend at which Loveland was asked to speak. Loveland spoke only a few words before feelings got the best of him as he thought of Marten.

“I was so emotional I couldn’t talk,” Loveland said, recalling that moment. “(Marten) was a very, very good friend. We were as close as two friends could be.”

Lt. Gary Bell of the
La Grande Police Department is encouraged to see that the Loveland Safe Ride Home program is being recognized.

“The award is well deserved,” Bell said. “We really appreciate their efforts.”

The La Grande officer noted that all accidents involving alcohol can be avoided, which makes the deaths caused by them particularly tragic.

“The Loveland Safe Ride program is a mechanism for preventing these tragedies,” Bell said.

Union County Sheriff’s Deputy Cody Bowen also said he believes the Safe Ride Home program is making an enormous difference.

“I definitely think it has cut down on fatalities,” Bowen said. “It is a great service.”

The Loveland Safe Ride Home program began in 2001 by offering free rides home on New Year’s Eve and has since grown to provide rides home from rodeo events such as the Eastern Oregon Livestock Show and the Elgin Stampede, and banquets for groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Oregon Hunters Association, Ducks Unlimited and National Rifle Association. Loveland said he is always open to adding to the number of events the Safe Ride Home program serves.

“If it is a nonprofit major event (in Union County), we will gladly be there,” Loveland said.

Rides are provided to anyone who requests one, even those under the legal drinking age of 21.

“No questions are asked,” Loveland said.

Safe Ride Home drivers often offer lifts to those who appear to be struggling to walk. Law enforcement officers regularly call Loveland’s program asking its drivers to look for someone they have spotted walking who might be endangering themselves.

People requesting a ride may be those who are sober themselves and wanting to avoid potential drunk drivers, or those who don’t want to walk home alone.

See complete story in Friday's Observer