Residents of Bennington County can safely plan to ring in their New Year with a toast -- or several, thanks to the Bennington County Sheriff's Department.

Program in 6th year

Members of law enforcement will be offering their annual "safe ride" program free of charge on New Years Eve, for those whose celebration plans include consuming alcohol away from their homes.

Between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., party-goers who need a safe and reliable ride home will gladly be given one, compliments of designated drivers from the Bennington County Sheriff's Department and Bennington Taxi.

The program is in its sixth year, since being started in 2009 by now-Sheriff Chad Schmidt.

"Everybody loves it, they think it's the greatest thing," said Schmidt, of the friendly atmosphere riders typically experience.

"We've never had any issues and we've seen a big decline in the number of DUI arrests that evening," he said, noting that in prior years his office experienced as many as four arrests on average during the same night. That number is now down to just one.

"I don't think it's a coincidence that the numbers have decreased," said Schmidt. "People who normally don't indulge may go out and have some drinks, and while we're not encouraging people to go out and drink, if you do, we want you to have a safe ride home."

"This is our way of giving back to the community, and asking the public to take a ride with us in the front seat, instead of in the back," said Schmidt, who helped model the program after a similar one implemented in Albany, and which is the first to be offered in the state of Vermont.

"As far as I know we're the only law enforcement agency in the state that offers a program like this one," he said.

The program works in a partnership -- the Sheriff's Department hires Bennington Taxi at an hourly rate, and assists with transport by stationing a dispatcher at the taxi headquarters. The dispatcher assists by using law enforcement airwaves to direct officers on duty to local revelers who choose to start their New Year safely, and in the company of Vermont's finest.

"We basically help out the taxi company," said Schmidt. "They're in the business of driving people and we didn't want to put them out of business, they just don't have the capacity to take home 200 people."

The number of those who take advantage of the program is typically between 100-200 people, according to the Sheriff's Department.

Three prisoner transport vans are used during the evening, as well as two vans donated by Bennington College, one from Enterprise Rent-A-Car and one from Joe Tornabene's Auto Sales and Service.

"I get calls from other people who say they were planning on staying home on New Year to avoid potentially drunk drivers on the roads, but now they don't have to," said Schmidt, citing the recent closings of several local bars as potentially helping to eliminate drinking and driving from Bennington-area roadways.

"It's a night that people are typically more prone to go out that night and be up until midnight drinking," said Schmidt, calling the holiday "inherently risky" for poor decision-making.

"It's about changing people's mindset -- letting them see it's pretty easy to call the taxi company and get a ride home, not just that night but any night."

To benefit from this free New Year's Eve service within Bennington County, call Bennington Taxi between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., at 802-442-9052.

Contact Khynna at kkuprian@benningtonbanner.com and follow her on Twitter @khynnakat.