BENNINGTON — Two programs in Southern Vermont and upstate New York aim to let people safely ring in the new year and prevent drunk driving.

Organizers of independent "safe ride" programs in Bennington and Rensselaer (New York) counties say free and safe transportation will be provided for people who drink away from their homes New Year's Eve. Both programs offer rides from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

In Bennington County, individuals or groups celebrating at a restaurant, bar or other establishment can get a free ride home, courtesy of the Sheriff's Department and Bennington Taxi. To arrange a pickup, call the taxi service at 802-442-9052.

In Rensselaer County, rides will be offered through the "Free Cab Ride Program," courtesy of the Rensselaer County Executive's Office and the Schenectady-based law office Martin, Harding & Mazzotti. To arrange a pickup, call 1-800-LAW-1010 (1-800-529-1010.)

Organizers say their programs are meant to reduce the number of DUI arrests, and prevent injuries and deaths from drunk driving crashes.

Bennington County "free ride"

Bennington County Sheriff Chad D. Schmidt said he's seen a significant reduction in the number of DUI arrests since starting the local effort, now in its seventh year.


"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," Schmidt said Wednesday. "Many people toast in the new year with a drink and it's implicit that most people will be drinking on New Year's Eve."

The county-wide service will bring people of legal drinking age from an establishment to their home. Rides won't be given from one bar, restaurant or other establishment to another, Schmidt said, and the service isn't meant to pick up people at private residences.

The Sheriff's Department hires taxi drivers at an hourly rate, Schmidt said. They'll be joined by sheriff deputies driving additional vehicles. A dispatcher is stationed at the taxi headquarters to assist with logistics and uses the Sheriff's Department airwaves to direct drivers to calls.

"We're essentially helping out the taxi company," Schmidt said. "They're in the business of driving people and we didn't want to drive them out of business. They don't have the capacity to take that many people."

Three of the Sheriff Department's prisoner transport vans will join the taxi service's vehicle fleet. In addition, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Bennington College and Southern Vermont College will each lend two vans, and Jelley's Auto Sales & Service in Pownal will lend an SUV.

In past years, anywhere between 100 to 250 people have taken advantage of the service in a single night, according to Schmidt.

Rensselaer County rides

Organizers of the second annual "Safe Cab Ride Program" hope to build upon last year's success — over 300 people took advantage of the "no questions asked" service, offered in nearby Rensselaer County communities.

"Driving drunk is never safe and never appropriate and I strongly urge all residents to plan accordingly for a safe ride home as you make your celebratory plans for the onset of the new year," said Rensselaer County Executive Kathleen M. Jimino in a press release.

Martin, Harding & Mazzotti, LLP has paid for cab rides on celebratory holidays for about a decade and thousands of people have used the service, according to the release. The latest incarnation is part of the Rensselaer County STOP-DWI Program.

Anyone interested in the Rensselaer County program should call the law firm at 800-LAW-1010 (800-529-1010) to speak with an operator.

Party with a plan

Law enforcement agencies in New York, Vermont and other states have announced extra patrols will be conducted New Year's Eve and officers will look for intoxicated drivers.

An average of one alcohol impaired-driving fatality happened every 52 minutes in 2013, according to information from AAA New England, and about 1.28 million United States drivers were arrested for driving under the influence in 2012. In Vermont, 2,647 people were arrested for DUI in 2014.

"Drivers should be aware of the high crash risk from drinking and driving associated with holidays, and we encourage them not to get behind the wheel if they've been drinking," said Pat Moody, AAA Northern New England manager of public affairs, in a recent press release.

AAA and law enforcement encourage people to designate a sober driver if they're going to celebrate with alcohol. Other safety tips offered by AAA include:

Calling a friend or family member for a ride home if you've been drinking

Keeping a cab or sober ride phone number in your cellphone or wallet so you can call for a ride home

Taking car keys away from friends and relatives who are drinking

If you're hosting a party, offer guests food, water and non-alcoholic drinks, and a place to spend the night

Local success

Schmidt said that after he took over as sheriff in October 2009, he saw the success of a safe ride program in the Albany, N.Y. area and wanted to bring it to Bennington.

"It just made sense," he said, adding that he hopes the service would encourage drinkers to call for a taxi during anytime of year.

Schmidt said he's received calls from people who have told him they didn't go out on New Year's Eve because they were worried about drunk drivers on the road. But some reported their fears were alleviated knowing that dozens of people who drink won't be behind the wheel.

"They feel safe to be out on the road again," he said.

Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979

Bennington County residents can receive a free ride home from a restaurant, bar or other establishment on New Year's Eve by calling Bennington Taxi at 802-442-9052.

Those celebrating in towns of Rensselaer County (New York) should call 1-800-LAW-1010, or 1-800-529-1010.

Both programs will offer rides between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.