By Jil McIntosh

Newmarket, Ontario – It’s to the credit of numerous government and private groups, and often peer pressure, that drinking and driving is now largely identified as anti-social behaviour. It’s no longer considered a joke or a source of pride, to everyone’s benefit.

But the reality is that some drivers will always push the limits, especially when they feel inconvenienced. In 90 communities across eight provinces, Operation Red Nose is trying to target these drivers and make a difference. Unlike a taxi service, the program delivers both the driver and his or her vehicle safely home.

In 2006, the program took home some 90,000 drivers and their vehicles across Canada, each one for free.

“The vast majority of clients hadn’t planned well enough ahead to get a designated driver or there’s no public transit,” said Brian Patterson, Ontario provincial coordinator of Operation Red Nose, and president and general manager of the Ontario Safety League, a major funding sponsor of the program. “They could take a cab, but their car would be left behind. When we surveyed, seven out of ten people said they didn’t want to risk leaving their car behind in a parking lot, or didn’t want the difficulty of getting back to the car in the morning. They’re frivolous ideas that we can essentially remove almost completely with this process.”

The service operates in communities in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Quebec on Friday and Saturday nights through December, with some also operating on New Year’s Eve. It’s run entirely by volunteers, both individuals and service clubs, who work out of a local headquarters.

When a call comes in, either from a bar or house party, a group of three volunteers gets into one car and drives to the site. From there, the customer rides in his or her own car with two of the volunteers, while the third volunteer follows behind. If there are extra passengers with the customer, they’re taken along in either vehicle, as long as everyone has a seatbelt. Once the customer is safely inside the home, the volunteers go back to the headquarters, or head out to another call. There’s no charge for any of it, but if a donation is offered, it’s graciously accepted and every penny is given to a local charity – as much as $1 million per year nationwide.

The program dates from 1984, when Laval University professor and swim team coach Jean-Marie De Koninck developed the program as a free designated-driver service that accepted donations to fund athletic scholarships. It grew with the support of the Quebec City police and radio station CHRC; today, Operation Nez Rouge covers 62 communities in Quebec, the most of any province.

On December 1, I had the opportunity to ride along with the Operation Red Nose crew in Newmarket, Ontario, north of Toronto. Ontario currently has seven programs, and on December 12 through 15 will run a pilot project in Toronto’s Distillery District, a downtown restaurant and shopping destination, that may lead to regular service in parts of the city.

I started my night in the Newmarket’s community centre, where volunteers came by about 9 p.m. to start their shift; the last rides are around 3 a.m. Those who want to drive have their licenses screened by police before they’re accepted, while other people volunteer to answer telephones. In some communities, businesses donate rental vehicles and/or fuel, but in Newmarket, the volunteers drive their own cars and buy their own gasoline, feeling strongly enough about the program that they’re willing to invest both time and money.

My first trip is with the “visiting team”, a group of three that takes the program’s mascot on a tour of some twenty bars. One volunteer dresses as the mascot, with trademark red vest and an oversized reindeer head. When “Rudy” ducks down to get his antlers through the doorway at Jersey’s Bar and Grill, a huge cheer goes up inside.

Each night of the program starts with the mascot visits; the team hands out business cards, and the disc jockey announces the service. Patterson said that although there are advertisements for Operation Red Nose up in each bar, bringing Rudy in each time reinforces the message to patrons and wait staff. Several patrons, male and female, insist on having their photo snapped with him.

According to the Newmarket volunteers, patronage is split fairly evenly between men and women. People from all walks of life use the service – “One night we took home a Bentley,” Patterson said. He stresses that Operation Red Nose is one more alternative to drinking and driving. “We’re not competing with taxis; the taxi companies are always supportive,” he said. “There’s an incredible amount of business that’s generated and they often have difficulty keeping up with it. We’ve not had issues with the services that drive your car home for a fee, either.”

A common scenario is people who took their cars to a bar, ended up drinking more than they planned, and don’t want to leave their vehicles behind. We get a call to a house party for a man with a Toyota minivan. He said he had only planned to have a couple of drinks, but when some long-lost friends arrived, he stayed and had seven or eight. He would have taken a cab home otherwise, but didn’t want to have to return the next day to pick up the van. As we drove him home, he told me that the week before, his brother had gotten into a car with an impaired driver, who crashed into a dump truck; his brother took the worst of it, with numerous stitches to his face.

Once his van was safely in the garage, he donated $20 for the ride. The group says donations average about $12, but they get a few $50 and $100 bills each season when customers find that it all goes to charity – in Newmarket’s case, St. John Ambulance Youth Services, which received $2,000 from the local program last year. Even the most generous donation is cheap insurance: Patterson said that when you factor in the fine, towing charges, lawyer fees, increased insurance premiums and the cost of alternative transportation during a license suspension, an average impaired driving charge will cost a driver about $17,000. “Even if you took the most expensive room at a hotel to sleep it off and got your car towed, it would still be cheaper,” he said.

My night with the Red Nose volunteers was quiet, due to a brutal snowstorm that closed a couple of bars early, but the chapter averages about 16 calls on a normal night – each one potentially preventing a tragedy.

To find out if there’s a program near you, to arrange a ride, to get more information, or to volunteer for the program, visit OperationRedNose.

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