Erie County this week will unveil a new program to reduce drunken driving by helping tavern and restaurant owners provide cab rides home for patrons who need one.
Go Safe is modeled after programs in Buffalo and other communities that provide free cab rides to those who drink too much on New Year's Eve and other holidays.
The county's new program, however, will be available every day. That makes it one of the few such programs in the country.
"I don't see it as a benefit to the drunk driver," said John Sullivan, project coordinator for the Stop-DWI Office. "I see it as a benefit for the rest of us on the roads."
To help pay for the program, Sullivan secured more than $10,000 in grant money from Guinness, the giant alcoholic beverage company whose brands include Smirnoff, Guinness, Johnnie Walker, J&B, Gordon's and Baileys.
Here is how the Go Safe program will work: Bars, restaurants and hotels will preregister as members of the program and buy numbered, laminated ride cards. Each ride card costs $4.
When an establishment wants to provide a ride for a patron, the bartender or manager will call a participating cab company. The bartender or manager will give a ride card to the patron, who then gives it to the cabdriver taking him or her home, Sullivan said.
Cabdrivers who accept these cards as fares will turn in the cards to their dispatchers. The cab companies will then redeem the cards by mailing them, along with an invoice for payment, to the Stop-DWI Office. Cab companies will receive $10 for each card returned.
The private grant will cover the $6 difference for each cab ride.
"Every card that is used is a drunken driver who would have driven home but did not," Sullivan said.
Only grant money from anti-DWI sponsors -- not tax dollars or DWI fine money -- will pay for the program, Sullivan said.
Ride cards will be sold only when the $6 match can be found ahead of time, he said.
Sullivan said he has enough money for 1,000 ride cards -- the program will expand as he secures more grant money. He predicts banquet halls using Go Safe for weddings and other celebrations.
About a dozen restaurants have signed up for the program.
"I really think this is a positive, proactive program," said Colleen Gibbons, president of the New York State Restaurant Association's Western New York chapter.
Establishments might provide their patrons with a second card for a return cab ride the next morning so the patrons can pick up their cars, Gibbons said. That could encourage the patron to go along with the idea of leaving his or her car at the bar.
The $4 cost for each card is low, she said.
"I think it's a small price to pay," she said. "It's so worth it compared to the consequences, like the cost of a lawsuit."
Sullivan said he has lined up several cab companies to participate in the program, including Central Dispatch of Western New York and Liberty Cab.
"We're probably not going to make a lot of money out of it, but it shouldn't cost us money," said Carol Graham, president of Central Dispatch.
She praised the program as "a community effort to help people be safe."
Graham's 16-cab company, based in South Buffalo, will make Go Safe calls a priority to prevent people from driving their own cars if they've been drinking too much, Graham said.
For 17 years, Liberty Cab has offered free rides home on New Year's Eve and other party days such as St. Patrick's Day.
"It's kind of a new twist, doing it every day," said Bill Yuhnke, Liberty Cab's president and chief executive officer. "It's a good program, and I'm glad Erie County has taken the lead in this."
The demand for cabs under the program is unknown, said Yuhnke, whose 85 cabs serve Erie and Niagara counties.
"The bottom line is you're taking the drunken driver off the road, and that's always a soft spot in my heart," he said.
The Stop-DWI Office will print and distribute the ride cards to establishments, raise more matching funds from sponsors, promote the program, maintain liability coverage for the county, handle invoices and reimburse cab companies.
What the county will not do is set guidelines for who should be offered a ride, Sullivan said. That will be left to the establishment.
No records will be kept on who uses the program, he said.
Sullivan said he decided to pursue the idea after reading a newspaper article about a drunken driver's court case.
Sullivan said he grew angry after reading how an unemployed repeat offender offered the judge a lame excuse for why he had to be driving the night police caught him.
"I remember saying to myself, 'Wouldn't it be great if someone didn't have an excuse to drive drunk anymore?' " Sullivan said.
His new program will leave drunken drivers without one if they are caught in coming months.